If the new messenger RNA technology powering the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines is giving you pause about getting the shot, consider this:
As you read this editorial, mRNA is at work within your body's cells and has been before you even took your first breath. At the most basic, mRNA acts as a short-lived shuttle, ferrying the instructions for making proteins to the cellular structures that produce them. In turn, these proteins fuel the chemical reactions that metabolize our food and create bone and muscle, among other vital processes.
"One of the important worker bees of the body" is how the University of Minnesota's Marc Jenkins, director of the Center for Immunology, sums up mRNA's practical ongoing importance.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may be a new type of vaccine, but as the nation struggles with COVID vaccine hesitancy, it's important to note that these shots work by leveraging the naturally occurring blueprint-for-building-proteins process described above. Essentially, these two vaccines provide another protein recipe, one that the body doesn't make, to prime the immune system to recognize and fight off the COVID virus.
Lack of understanding about mRNA and how it works has regrettably led to misunderstandings and outright falsehoods — chief among them, that mRNA vaccines are "gene therapy" — about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. That's problematic when the pair has become the workhorses of the COVID vaccination campaign and widespread vaccination is needed to stamp out viral spread.
As of Friday, 54.1% of Minnesotans ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated. Pfizer constitutes 55% of vaccine doses administered in the state, and it's currently the only vaccine authorized for use in those ages 12-15.
Moderna comprises 40.5% of doses administered here. Production problems and a temporary pause to study a rare side effect have stymied wider use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which relies on an older method of stimulating an immune response.
Because of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines' important role in ending the pandemic, the Star Tribune Editorial Board enlisted Jenkins to address concerns about them as part of its ongoing "Our Best Shot" series tackling vaccine hesitancy. Jenkins is also professor at the U's medical school and in 2020 was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a high honor reserved for those with "distinguished and continuing achievements in original research."
Although cellular biology can quickly get complicated, the explanation for why mRNA isn't "gene therapy" is straightforward. Your genetic code is composed of DNA. It resides in a cell's nucleus, a no-go zone for vaccine mRNA. It "doesn't have access to the part of the cell where DNA is," Jenkins said.
In addition, mRNA doesn't have the capacity to directly alter DNA and further working against is that mRNA is "very unstable." Enzymes in cells quickly break it down, something that was a major barrier to developing vaccines relying on it, Jenkins said. It didn't last long enough to produce a viral immune response.
The science has advanced, but the mRNA in the COVID vaccines still doesn't hang around long, another argument for why it's not "gene therapy."
Jenkins notes that years of research paved the way for mRNA vaccines and that they hold the potential to one day protect against cancer and other conditions. For those worried about the mRNA technology's newness, he said, "It's not like we were starting on Square One."
These vaccines are also faster and cheaper to make than more traditional inoculations, Jenkins said. They also have the potential to be more potent, with the second dose in particular playing an important role. Pfizer and Moderna are both a two-shot series. If antibodies were dollars in a bank account, Jenkins said it would be like going from $2,000 to $50,000.
Jenkins said he had no reservations about getting the Moderna vaccine or recommending an mRNA vaccine to others. "Two weeks past my second shot, I have full confidence I can restart my normal life. … I've encouraged all my family members to do the same thing."
To see the full interview with Jenkins, go here.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The faster we vaccinate, the faster the COVID-19 pandemic ends. But the speed with which the shots were developed has led to understandable questions. The Editorial Board's #OurBestShot series enlists Minnesota health and community leaders to deliver timely, trustworthy answers.
Here's a collection of articles, videos and other resources presented so far, with more planned:
Editorial: The big risk is in not getting vaccinated (March 28).
Video: Dr. Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic discusses the potential side effects of the vaccines, and explains why the risks and impacts are low.
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Editorial: Communities of color face unique vaccination fears (April 4).
Video: M Health Fairview, in a conversation with leaders of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities in the Twin Cities, addresses questions and concerns about the vaccines.
Frequently asked questions: A report from the Sahan Journal, a trusted St. Paul-based source of news and information for migrant and immigrant communities, provides and wealth of vaccine information while also dispelling rumors that the shots contain pork or other products not considered halal.
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Editorial: Needle phobia? There's help available to deal with fear (April 11).
Video: A fear of needles "shouldn't be something people feel embarrassed about." A conversation with Dr. Andrew Slattengren, a veteran medical provider and president of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians,
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Editorial: Young and healthy? That's no excuse for skipping vaccination (April 19).
Video: A conversation with Dr. George Morris of St. Cloud-based CentraCare on misperceptions about two stubborn misperceptions that lead to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
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Editorial: Cost is not a reason to avoid getting a COVID shot (April 25).
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Editorial: Fact-checking claims about COVID vaccines and fertility (May 9).
Video: A conversation with Dr. Sarah Cross, medical director of M Health Fairview's The Birthplace, and an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, about fertility misinformation.
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Editorial: A previous infection is no reason to skip COVID shots (May 15).
The Star Tribune Editorial Board operates independently of the newsroom and is not involved in setting newsroom policies or in reporting or editing articles in other sections of the newspaper or StarTribune.com.