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To address some of the current questions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, TCU News spoke with Giridhar Akkaraju, Ph.D., vaccine expert and professor and chair of the biology department in the College of Science & Engineering. Akkaraju teaches, among other courses, Virology and Molecular Basis of Human Disease. He holds a doctorate in molecular genetics and biochemistry and focuses in the areas of viral pathogens and other related disciplines. Below, Akkaraju answers questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, including how it was developed historically fast and whether or not it will hold up against new coronavirus variants. 

To start with a massive question, from a public health perspective, what do you feel we’ll be able to take from the pandemic experience?

For several decades, developed countries have not experienced mass infectious disease outbreaks (aka pandemics). This has led us to let down our guard. In an effort to reduce costs, public health surveillance centers that collect and analyze data across the globe have been closed down, and research in infectious disease epidemiology and treatment has slowed. This pandemic reminds us that these events are unpredictably predictable. Pandemics will happen, and we will never know when.

This pandemic also has highlighted people’s distrust of public science and institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also has shown how easily public health can be politicized. It has taught us – scientists and public health officials – that science education and communication are critical to prevent the breakdown in public health and the serious damage to the economy that this pandemic has caused. We need to rebuild people’s faith in science and medicine. 

With COVID-19 cases declining, does that mean the vaccine is doing its job? And how does that translate for people who have not yet been vaccinated?

As the extent of vaccinations increases, the number of cases is declining. This strongly suggests that the vaccine is protecting populations. This is dramatically highlighted by the recent observation that most new cases of COVID-19 are showing up in unvaccinated individuals.

The generation of herd immunity by vaccinating a majority of the population (usually 80-90%) will effectively protect the small number of people who can’t be vaccinated or are incapable of generating the protective antibodies needed.

How are the vaccines holding up to any new COVID-19 variants? 

So far, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines seem to be effective against the variants (including the new, highly infectious delta variant.) However, it is the nature of the virus to generate variants, and the more opportunities the virus has to reproduce, the more variants it will generate. This increases the chances of the virus producing a variant that is resistant to the vaccines. This highlights the importance of getting the pandemic under control and reducing the spread of the virus.

Can new vaccines be generated against the variants?

That is the power of the new mRNA vaccine technology. The vaccine can be easily modified to mimic and produce new variants of the Spike protein, if and when they appear. These new vaccines can be quickly manufactured and distributed to immunize populations against potential new variants, if necessary. 

With the rapid production and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, what does this mean for the future of vaccines?

As mentioned, the mRNA vaccines are highly adaptable to new pathogens. They can be designed and manufactured relatively easily. It is likely to be the first line of vaccine development in the future.

The COVID-19 vaccine was developed and distributed historically fast. What made this possible? 

Several reasons:

  1. This technology (the mRNA vaccine) has been developed and tested since the 1990s. I am referring to the phenomenon by which information – in the form of mRNA – can be injected into muscle tissue, where it is used to produce a protein. In a way, it was a technology looking for the opportunity to be put to use. When COVID-19 surfaced, the technology was further modified and tested to determine if it could stimulate the production of antiviral antibodies, and it was a success.
  2. A perfect storm of circumstances. This vaccine produces a viral protein (the Spike protein) in the body. This activates the immune system quite strongly, as it perceives it to be a foreign protein. In response, the body produces antibodies that can bind to this protein. This does not happen for every foreign protein produced in the body. It is fortunate that the coronavirus Spike protein induced a strong antibody response, and viral infection is blocked by these antibodies.
  3. The vaccine development process was expedited. The emergency authorization is one example of this process. This allowed it to be deployed in the general population much quicker. A similar approach was taken with the Salk Poliovirus vaccine in the ’50s, which was administered to hundreds of thousands of children across the U.S. without much testing. This highlights how, when there is a political and administrative will, the proper application of resources can result in a positive outcome.  

Anything you would like to add? 

I would like to reiterate that vaccination denies the virus a home where it otherwise could reproduce and potentially generate more dangerous variants. This is our main weapon against this pandemic.

If you haven’t received your COVID-19 vaccine, TCU is offering a free, walk up vaccine clinic at the Brown-Lupton Health Center, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. The clinic is open to all students, faculty and staff, as well as the community.

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