On December 18th, 2020, I received my first dose of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. On January 9th, 2021, I received my second. I am now a CDC-card-carrying, fully vaccinated person.
The build-up to the first dose was momentous. I was scheduled for the first dose of the morning. Our vaccine clinic was abuzz with excitement and hope, and some media folks were there to capture the moment. A couple of fellow emergency physicians were in the same cohort of recipients as I; we exchanged virtual high-fives and took a picture of socially distanced hugs. It was, after all, the closest thing we'd had to a celebration in months.
I walked in the vaccine administration room with anticipation – it was tough to believe this moment was truly, finally here. I got a little video of my getting the shot, took my obligate vaccine selfie, waited in the observation area for 15 minutes to ensure I didn't have a reaction, and then proudly joined 1000s of fellow healthcare workers across the country in posting #ThisIsMyShot on social media. "Here we go, America!"
The first shot, though, didn't actually do all that much for me. It hurt less than a flu shot (which, by the way, doesn't hurt much). I had virtually no side effects. I also knew that it did not yet protect me. The Pfizer (and Moderna) data show very clearly that although the immune response starts to grow 10-12 days after the first shot, one doesn't reach full protection against COVID-19 until much later.
So when, two days after my first shot, I headed back to work in the emergency department, I kept wondering "Will this be the day that I get sick? Wouldn't that be ironic!" Although I never go without an N95 during patient care, it just takes one slip – scratching one's eyes, eating lunch in a break room that an infected colleague had just been in – to get ill. Ten months into this pandemic, it is so easy to get fatigued, to make a small error just one time.
Indeed, I had a few colleagues fall ill in between their first and second shots; one was hospitalized. This was not surprising, but still sad, given how close they had come to escaping infection.
Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
This time period felt a little like we had our learner's permit for driving: we were on our way to being safe, but not quite there yet.
I also watched, with dismay, our failures as a nation at timely distribution of the vaccine. On December 18th, despite the logistical snafus that many of us had started to highlight, it was still somewhat believable that we would at least distribute (if not actually administer) 20 million doses by the New Year. But by December 31, my worst fears about the feds' lack of planning had been realized. Only 14 million doses had gone to states, and fewer than 3 million had been administered. Within the public health and medical community, we began to debate how to handle the shortages and slow vaccination rates: should we change prioritization schemes? Get rid of the second dose, in contradiction to what our FDA had approved?
Let me be clear: I really, really, really wanted my second dose. It is what is supported by the data. After living this long at risk, it felt frankly unfair that I might not get fully protected. I waited with trepidation, afraid that policies would shift before I got it in my arm.
At last, my date for my second shot arrived.
This shot was a little less momentous on the outside. The vaccine clinic was much more crowded, as we were now administering first doses to more people, as well as providing the second dose to many. There were no high fives, no media, and I took no selfies. I finished my observation period without trouble (as did everyone else vaccinated the same day, as is typical for these vaccines). I walked out the door planning to spend a nice afternoon outdoors with my kids.
Within 15 minutes, though, the very common side effects – reported by 80% of people my age after the second dose – began to appear. First I got a headache (like 52% of people my age), then body aches (37%), fatigue (59%), and chills (35%). I felt "foggy", like I was fighting something. Like 45% of trial participants who had received the actual vaccine, I took acetaminophen and ibuprofen to stave off the symptoms. There is some minimal evidence from other vaccines that pre-treatment with these anti-inflammatories may reduce antibodies, but given that half of trial participants took these medications, there's no reason to make yourself suffer if you develop side effects. Forty-eight hours later, just in time for my next shift, the side effects magically cleared. Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
My reaction was truly typical. Although the media hype focuses on major negative reactions, they are – statistically speaking – tremendously rare: fewer than 11/million people who received the Pfizer vaccine, and 3/million who received the Moderna vaccine, developed anaphylaxis; of these, all were treated, and all are fine. Compare this with the fact that approximately 1200/million Americans have died of this virus. I'll choose the minor, temporary, utterly treatable side effects any day.
Now, more than 14 days after my second dose, the data says that my chance of getting really sick is, truly, infinitesimally low. I don't have to worry that each shift will put me into the hospital. I feel emotionally lighter, and a little bit like I have a secret super-power.
But I also know that we are not yet home free.
I may have my personal equivalent of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak – but we don't yet know whether it protects those around me, at all. As Dr. Fauci himself has written, while community spread is high, there is still a chance that I could be a carrier of infection to others. So I still wear my N95 at work, I still mask in public, and I still shower as soon as I get home from a shift and put my scrubs right in the washing machine to protect my husband and children. I also won't see my parents indoors until they, too, have been vaccinated.
At the end of the day, these vaccines are both amazing and life-changing, and not. My colleagues are getting sick less often, now that many of us are a week or more out from our second dose. I can do things (albeit still masked) that would simply not have been safe a month ago. These are small miracles, for which I am thankful. But like so many things in life, they would be better if shared with others. Only when my community is mostly vaccinated, will I breathe easy again.
My deepest hope is that we all have – and take - the chance to get our shots, soon. Because although the symbolism and effect of the vaccine is high, the experience itself was … not that big a deal.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.