Part two of a three-part series exploring science, existential dread, and loud people who clearly did not try hard enough in high school.
Part Two: Vaccines
In which the author is a Brave Big Boy, isn’t he, oh yes he is a Brave Big Boy!
In early May 2021 I got the call to book my first COVID-19 vaccination. I say call, but what I really mean is a confounding text message linked to an online booking tool which had me banging my fist on the desk and screaming all the bad words I know while the room spun in a red haze.
In my defence, it was an emotional time for everybody. We were desperate for relief after an 18-month-long existential threat to lives and loved ones. Frustrations with a first-generation booking app were bound to crop up. Anyhoo, when I regained consciousness, my wife helped me find an open slot at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney, alongside more old people than I’ve seen since the last time I went to Sidney, sometime after the Kaiser surrendered.
Happily, the actual vaccination process turned out to be quick and easy, a total success thanks to the work of countless scientists, researchers, administrators and, of course, medical professionals. That afternoon I celebrated their remarkable achievement in the time-honoured method: I went home to drink a very nice bottle of single malt in the basement. I may have cried a little.
Vaccines have been around for a long time. Longer, in fact, than the technology necessary to actually observe germs. In 1796 the Englishman Edward Jenner came up with the first vaccine for smallpox, never having seen the virus that causes the deadly disease.
At the time, smallpox killed 400,000 people a year in Europe, and left one-third of its survivors blind. It had far worse consequences when Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores brought the disease to the New World, along with horses and syphilis and a certain laissez-faire attitude towards the locals’ long-term happiness.
Jenner’s remarkable discovery was that people exposed to cowpox, a related but non-lethal disease, didn’t get smallpox. In the spirit of early medicine (“I’m a doctor, do what I say!”), Jenner injected fluid from the pustules on a dairymaid into a young boy, who sickened but did not die.
I swear I’m not making this up. The boy was protected from smallpox for life, which given the era probably wasn’t very long, but anyway, what a great story involving dairymaids and pustules and no-clearly-doesn’t-mean-no. Wait, there’s more: the Latin word for cow is vacca, and cowpox is vaccinia – so Jenner decided to call this new procedure STATE-SPONSORED MIND CONTROL. Wait, sorry, that was a typo. He called it, “vaccination.”
This all begs an answer to the important question, does cowpox give you a bad case of the cows or what, exactly? It also begs the question, what is a vaccine?
Vaccines for… No, no, I’m not calling you Dummies
Vaccines are different from medicines like penicillin and Lipitor and the bottle of “Grandpa’s Little Helper” in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. Basically, medicines treat diseases, whereas vaccines prevent you from getting sick in the first place.
Also, vaccines are more likely to send “health freedom” protestors into a rage, whereas everybody is pretty much OK with Tylenol and chemotherapy drugs.
Let’s talk medical vocabulary for a minute. At no point in the following do I want you to think I am a doctor, but equally, at no point do I want you to think I am a Walmart greeter:
• Vaccines are products that produce immunity to a specific disease, which means you are protected against it, but only if you take the vaccine. I would have thought that point obvious, but as it turns out, nope.
• Vaccination is the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease. Unfortunately this usually involves a needle, although some are given orally (by mouth) or nasally (sprayed into the nose).
• Health freedom protestors are easily motivated people with a lot of time on their hands who demonstrate their firm belief that the best way to ensure proper health care for all is to interrupt and antagonize doctors and nurses.
How vaccines work
Vaccines work by training your immune system to recognize disease-causing germs or parts of the germ, and then to punch them in the face. Essentially, your immune system is made up of a pretty gross network of organs and cells that all work together to help protect you from getting sick. The system is not perfect, largely because there is always some Karen who comes to work sniffling and sneezing in the hope of killing you.
Anyway, when a germ gets into your body through one of your many holes (you know who you are), the immune system is designed to identify the germ as being foreign, such as from Iran or Norway or elsewhere outside the body.
Then it makes special proteins called antibodies to help destroy the germ in a variety of ways, including sticking to the surface of the germ, and harsh sarcasm. Finally, the immune system remembers what the germ looks and smells like, so the next time Karen coughs your body can fight off the germs before you get sick. This ongoing protection is called immunity.
The downside to the process of achieving immunity is that you can get really sick the first time your body experiences the germ. If the germ is bad enough, you get dead before your immune system can cope.
This is why vaccines are so important for the human race and also many of our pets (to be clear, I’m not talking about the neighbour’s grey and white tabby that keeps pooping in my garden). My point is that vaccines give you immunity to a disease without you getting sick or dead first. The vaccine sort of introduces your body to the virus in a safe way.
Vaccine: Body, this is dangerous virus X. Virus X, this is the body.
Virus X: Hello.
Body: Can I punch it in the face now?
Types of vaccines
Vaccines are made using several different processes depending on the kind of germ and the disease it causes. Each type has undergone decades of rigorous scientific testing to find out which is least likely to start a conspiracy theory.
Attenuated live virus vaccines are made from actual living viruses that have been weakened or altered so as not to cause illness. If “live virus” sounds a little scary to you, don’t worry, you have already received at least one. The measles, mumps, and rubella shot you got at age 12-months is this kind of vaccine.
Inactivated (a term used by scientists and Jack Ryan to mean “killed”) vaccines are made from viruses that have been Mike Tysoned to death. The inactivated virus floats around your body and trains the immune system without making you sick, because the virus itself is so sick, like, All The Way sick. Examples are the Polio, Hepatitis A, and Rabies vaccines.
Subunit/conjugate vaccines are made from a small part of the germ, something obvious and irritating that provokes an immune system response, such as anything that Victoria city council says or does about bike lanes. Examples include the vaccine for Hepatitis B and the annual autumn flu jab.
And finally, Bill Gates. Ha ha, I probably shouldn’t have written that. I was just checking to see if you are still awake/rational/not crazy.
The new type of shot you’ve heard about in the fight against COVID-19 is called an mRNA vaccine, because other letters of the alphabet were not available. In this vaccine, a small bit of viral genetic material is put into your upper arm muscle (lower if you squirm). The viral material contains instructions for your cells to make a harmless piece of what is called a “spike protein,” which also happens to be a great band name.
After the spike protein is made by your muscle cells, the cells breaks down the instructions and deletes them, just like you do with the browser history on your work laptop, if you know what I mean and I think you do. Next, the cells display the protein spike on their surface, and your immune system does its thing with the antibodies, etc. You gain protection without having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19, which, I should probably point out, includes dying.
Believe me, I understand why people do not want to have a needle put in them. I myself am a people who do not want to have a needle put in them. It hurts and it is icky. Since my heart attack three years ago I have had to endure a lot of needles, and while I am against them on the hurts/icky grounds mentioned above, I am far more against suffering and/or dying.
The thing to remember, even more than “pustules on a dairymaid,” is that it is much safer to get a vaccine than to get the disease it prevents. Look, it’s ME talking. It’s DAVE. You can trust me.
Why can’t I trust Dave? What the hell is going on?
Discover the terrible history of smallpox and the life-saving work of Edward Jenner: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/
Learn about all the safe and effective vaccines provided in B.C. – healthlinkbc.ca/tools-videos/bc-immunization-schedules
Find out about the new mRNA vaccines: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html