By now I am certain that everyone has heard the most uplifting news of the year - the first COVID-19 vaccine has received approval for use and limited supplies are now being distributed to the most vulnerable members of our society.

However there is a more interesting aspect to this vaccine, at least to scientist such as myself, in that it is the first human vaccine to use the mRNA techniques that were first proposed over twenty-five years ago. (Not to be confused with the dreaded MRSA infection, as a few newscasters have been doing this week)

So what is this novel new method, and why is it so revolutionary?

A traditional vaccine works by injecting the body with a weakened or dead virus, so that the recipient's immune system can create antibodies that can isolate and destroy that particular organism. When exposed to a living virus at full strength, the body already knows how to respond to it.

The mRNA method is quite different. There is no virus involved, but rather the vaccine causes cells in the recipient's body to generate a spike protein. Muscle cells in the upper arm have their genetic code modified to generate an alien protein on their surface, which the immune system sees as an invader and launches a limited attack against it. In theory, all of the affected muscle cells are then broken down and excreted from the body, but the immune system now contains antibodies that allow it to attack any cell containing this particular surface spike protein.

This spike protein is completely harmless, but it happens to exist on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. And so when the immune system encounters this spike protein, it already knows how to contain it and remove it from the body. The difference is that the recipient is never exposed to even a weakened form of the actual virus.

There are still valid concerns about this method, and the fact that it has never been successfully used in a human vaccine is a worry for many people. This medicine works by modifying the recipients genetic structures, albeit in a very limited way. The fact that its clinical trials and ultimate approval for use was conducted under the rushed panic of a global pandemic makes many people wonder if it is safe. We cannot really know what the long term effects of mRNA modifications will be. 

I will not offer an opinion on this question, because there is no correct answer. We have an untested method of treating the most serious pandemic of the past century. Individuals facing imminent death from the virus are likely going to be eager for any preventative treatment. People who are otherwise healthy but cautious of new biotechnology will likely have the opposite opinion. Neither view is clearly right or wrong, but depends on the individual experiences and beliefs of each person.

But for the first time in nearly a year, we finally have hope.