Author: Sara Habibipour
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Even if you don’t remember it from a biology course, by now you’ve probably heard the term “mRNA vaccine,” such as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. But, what is “mRNA?” Can it change my DNA? Why was this vaccine created so fast? Is it even safe? We hope to answer these questions and address some of the myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine in this article.
What is mRNA?
mRNA is short for “messenger RNA,” a genetic molecule that contains instructions for making proteins. Your DNA is your genetic material and it contains instructions for your cells on how to make proteins. The problem is, DNA can’t leave the nucleus, its house, to tell your cell what to make and how to do it. This is where mRNA comes in!
mRNA is a copy of a certain gene of your DNA that is able to leave the nucleus and enter the cytoplasm, the liquid outside of the nucleus that contains all of the other parts of the cell, including your ribosomes. Ribosomes are the manufacturing center of the cell that make your proteins with the instructions of the mRNA.
Image Source: iStock
How Does the mRNA Vaccine Work?
For the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, the mRNA encodes the instructions to make one protein of the coronavirus: the spike protein. The virus that causes COVID-19 is genetically very similar to other coronaviruses, such as the common cold. The main difference is the spike protein, therefore it is a great target for our immune system to recognize.
mRNA is highly sensitive, so it is encapsulated in a lipid vesicle that keeps it safe from damage so that it can make it into your cells. Once inside, the mRNA gives your cell the instructions to create the spike protein. These proteins make their way to the cell surface where they can stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies.
BUT WAIT!!! Doesn’t that mean I can get COVID from the vaccine if my body is producing the same proteins it’s made of?! Ah...excellent question. Let’s dive into a few myths about mRNA vaccines.
Myth 1: The COVID-19 vaccine can give me COVID because the mRNA vaccine tells my cells to produce the COVID spike protein
The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine only encodes one protein: the spike protein. COVID is made of 29 total viral proteins. Let’s compare this to making a cake. The cake is Sars-Cov-2 (the COVID-19 virus) and the spike protein is flour. When you’re being vaccinated, you’re only getting the flour to make a cake. It’s impossible, right?! You need sugar, eggs, oil, frosting, sprinkles, etc. All of these other ingredients would be the 28 other viral proteins. But, I’m only giving you the flour. No COVID-cake for you! So, no, you can’t get COVID from the vaccine.
Myth 2: The mRNA vaccine can alter my DNA
In a cell, all of your genetic information, your DNA, is held in the nucleus of the cell. Nothing can enter the nucleus..not even mRNA! That’s kinda the whole purpose of the nucleus; it protects your DNA. So, no, the mRNA vaccine cannot alter your DNA.
Also, after mRNA is used, the cell destroys it. So, once it does its business, it’s out of your system!
Myth 3: The vaccine is injecting me with nanoparticles
Yup! Probably not the “nanoparticle” you’re thinking of, though.
Because mRNA is so fragile, it must be encapsulated in lipid particles, called nanoparticles, which are no stranger to your body. Your cell membrane is literally made of lipids, so that’s nothing new.
People hear the term “nanoparticles” and automatically think it’s some sort of microchip or something. No, it’s not a microchip. I’m not going to spend time delving into Bill Gates conspiracy theories; I’m just going to address the fact that “nanoparticles” and “microchips” are not the same thing.
Myth 4: The COVID-19 vaccine is not safe because it was developed so quickly
You know what’s so cool?
mRNA vaccines can be so rapidly produced because you don’t need to obtain a live virus in order to manufacture them. With other live or attenuated vaccines, you used to have to obtain the virus in a biosafety lab, which there are very few of in the world, and allow them time to reproduce significantly so you can have a high enough amount to trigger an immune response per vaccine.
We don’t have to wait that long anymore! With mRNA technology, we are able to rapidly manufacture vaccines in more labs across the globe! If significant mutations were to occur that would require a new vaccine, then this is such a bonus! All of the clinical trials to test these vaccines were done accurately and thoroughly as they are supposed to. The speed at which the vaccines were done should not be of concern. It should be celebrated. Science is moving forward!
Myth 5: The Vaccine is Made of Aborted Baby Cells and it Can Cause Infertility/Miscarriage
Nope. No. Just no.
It’s made of mRNA. I really didn’t want to have to bring this topic up, but it’s such a popular conspiracy theory nowadays, I had to. I’m not quite sure why this myth is so popular, but it is absolutely one billion percent false. Neither the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine nor the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines contain fetal cells.
As far as the vaccine causing infertility or miscarriage, yet another significant disinformation was launched promoting this idea.
COVID-19 infection has not been linked to infertility, and neither has any other viral infection or vaccine. Antibodies to the spike protein have not been linked to infertility after COVID-19 infection. There is no scientific reason to believe this will change after vaccination for COVID-19.
If COVID-19 affected fertility, there already would be an increase in miscarriage rates in women infected with COVID-19 because During natural infection, the immune system generates the same antibodies to the spike as triggered by the vaccine. This has not happened.