On the COVID-19 Vaccine, Scientific Literacy, and this Column

by Frank Liu, Columnist
photo contributed by Frank Liu

Unlike my fall down the icy external stairs to our basement today, the dual announcements of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month were monumental, turning what might have been a slow holiday season into a flurry of activity as organizations prepare for a post-vaccine 2021. Of course, analysts predict it’s going to be another year before the vaccines are administered to everyone, but expectations are high. Let’s first understand how the vaccine actually works.

Both vaccines are of a new class known as messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. These vaccines take advantage of an integral process in cells known as the central dogma: essentially, how hereditary genes in DNA are expressed into traits in the form of functional proteins (mRNA is an intermediate molecule in this process). The vaccine has an artificially synthesized mRNA sequence sheathed in a fat nanoparticle, which helps the mRNA enter the cell. 

Once in the cell, the mRNA can use ribosomes to make copies of the protein it codes for, a spike protein (part of the virus coat of SARS-CoV-2), before the mRNA is degraded by cell enzymes. Viruses are uniquely identifiable to the immune system through the spike proteins on their coat, so someone exposed to the vaccine spike proteins is also able to defend against the coronavirus if they are exposed to it in the future. Since no actual virus particles are injected, the chance of negative side effects or infection are next to none.

Media would lead you to believe that it’s more complicated; from using an amalgamation of confusing-but-factual quotes from experts instead of an actual explanation to including unnecessary terminology like “helper T-cell” and “antigen presenting,” media is designed to confuse. Americans are not exactly known for scientific prowess: around 30% can answer what gene expression actually means, and 35% of adults trust science “a great deal” while  51% trust science “a fair amount” — what does “a fair amount” even mean?

While understandably getting Flat Earthers to realize the world is round or a majority of the population to comprehend how a ribosome works is not a top governmental priority, when scientific illiteracy has tangible consequences, we must do something. Anti-vaxxers have caused the deadly measles virus to reappear in the U.S. A lack of public health awareness got us into a pandemic (complimentary second wave included!) in the first place. Even now, while an improvement from survey responses earlier this year, only 60% of the public says that they will get the vaccine. Imagine how much higher this number would be if everyone understood how the vaccine worked.

America cannot — we cannot — survive in our modern world without a basic understanding of science. So much information, true or false, is readily available, but without a background in science it is difficult to determine what to trust. The fate of our community, from family to school to country, rests on scientific literacy. This new science column, while mainly written by Science Team members, is open to all and aims to explain scientific concepts and their relation to the world around us. I’m not saying anyone has to be good at, or even like science, but it’s worthwhile to read about it every now and then.

There’s so much out there, and I encourage you to give loving science a shot (no pun intended). To finish my opening story: I needed flour stored in the basement to bake a souffle to celebrate getting funding for a science project. In my excitement, I did not realize running down icy stairs in sandals was not the best idea. Maybe being too into science is not conducive to my well-being either.