COVID vaccines may work, but are they safe?

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 1st of December, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: vaccines.

Coronavirus cases are surging around the world. But help is on the way, and soon. Several vaccines are set to hit the market in the next few weeks. More will soon follow. They’re reportedly effective, but are they safe? And can Christians get them without violating their pro-life principles?

BROWN: Joining us now to help answer those questions is WORLD’s medical correspondent, Dr. Charles Horton. Welcome back to the program!

CHARLES HORTON, GUEST: Thanks for having me!

BROWN: Let’s start with these new vaccines. Trials have shown they are a lot more effective than epidemiologists thought they would be. And that’s partly because of the way they work. Can you explain what an RNA vaccine is and how it differs from other vaccines?

HORTON: Conventional vaccines are given in the form that’s meant to make the immune system respond. You can give patients inactivated forms of a virus, as with the injectable flu shot. You can give them what’s called an “attenuated,” or inactivated form of a virus, as with the FluMist nasal vaccine or the MMR—the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. You can give a different virus that doesn’t make people very ill, but that brings about antibodies to the real bug you’re trying to prevent. That’s what the smallpox vaccine did. Or you could give a “toxoid,” an inactivated form of something toxic—which is how the tetanus shot works.

Here, it’s something new. Instead of making the protein that the immune system is supposed to attack—again, usually with a live virus or an inactivated virus—the RNA vaccine has one’s own body cells produce the protein so that the immune system can see it and learn to attack it.

BROWN: Have vaccine makers used this RNA process before?

HORTON: In the lab, yes. It’s one of those tools that’s existed in some form for a long time, but it hadn’t come to market yet. A lot of this relates to how the timeframe for vaccine development had always worked up until now: things happen slowly and over a course of years. 

One of the advantages, though, of RNA vaccine technology is if this works, it will allow future vaccine development to happen much more quickly, and it would let us respond to future threats in a much more timely fashion. 

BROWN: We’ve gotten some questions about these vaccines from listeners who’ve read some worrisome things about them online. One claim is that they actually modify the recipient’s RNA. How can we know these RNA vaccines are safe?

HORTON: We should probably take a moment here to discuss the difference between DNA and RNA, which is what’s used in these vaccines. They sound very similar, and they do work together, but their roles are very different. DNA is the language in which God writes each person’s genetic code. Cells don’t make proteins directly from DNA, though. First they transcribe it to what’s called mRNA, for messenger RNA, and then they make proteins from the messenger RNA.

If you remember vinyl records—I know I’m dating myself here—DNA is like the aluminum master disc that they made with a lathe. Now, when you transcribe it to mRNA, it’s like making a vinyl record from that aluminum master disc. Using that information, then, to make proteins is like putting the record on a turntable and playing it. Here, we’re dealing with mRNA and leaving DNA out of it—so we can play the record, but you can’t make more copies of it. And that’s relevant here because it’s not changing your body’s genetic code, which is your DNA. It’s giving a new transcript. It’s sort of putting a different record in the player, if you will. And then when that RNA is gone, it’s gone. 

Now, safety-wise, it doesn’t have the track record of conventional vaccine designs. And as with any development in medicine, it is not impossible for problems to crop up in future. But, again, changes to patients’ genetic code are one problem we don’t need to worry about.

BROWN: What about ethical concerns? Some of these vaccines use cell lines taken from babies killed in abortion. Are there some that don’t?

HORTON: The short answer, thank God, is yes. One of the unique things about non-replicating mRNA vaccines is they actually don’t have to use cell lines at all, whether ethically sourced or not. And according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, both of the leading mRNA vaccines—the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech one—are indeed produced without cell lines. I do have to note here that the news is not as good for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or the Johnson & Johnson ones, which do use those unethical cell lines.

Incidentally, Sanofi/GSK and Novavax are also OK—according to the list that Charlotte Lozier Institute publishes. They use a cell line called Sf9, which is derived from insects. As far as inactivated vaccines, listeners in the U.S. aren’t likely to see those. They’re from China. But apparently all three of those use a cell line from monkeys—so our listeners overseas can keep that in mind.

BROWN: Before I let you go, I wanted to ask about COVID tests. Are they getting more accurate? And what about at-home testing kits?

HORTON: We’ve had something sold as at-home testing kits for awhile, but they were really at-home sampling kits. People would use the kits to get a saliva sample or a nasal swab, which they would then send off to a laboratory. So it did avoid needing to drive to a lab or doctor’s office, but it was not a true in-home rapid test. It was a test where people would get the sample, put it in a package, and then days later—after it had reached the lab and been analyzed—they would get a result. 

What has come to market in the past few weeks is a true at-home test that doesn’t go to a lab. Users do a nasal swab, put the nasal swab into a vial of reagents, and then put the vial into a little battery-powered tester that’s included with the kit, and it looks for a color change in the reagent vial.

As for tests becoming more accurate, this is one of those “yes and no” questions. Labs have developed better technology, and last week the FDA approved an antibody test that’s supposed to be both very sensitive and very specific—over 98 percent for each. In plain English, that means you’re very unlikely to get a false negative or a false positive.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that if one gets a test, it could be any of a number of different tests. And labs are often using whatever tests they can get their hands on right now because there’s such a demand for testing. Often those are the older ones that have made their way through the distribution system. In my area the positivity rate has often in the 15-20 percent range, and that means we’re missing cases. We’re not testing enough people. The virus is spreading aggressively at this point.

So, I’m very thankful for the progress we’ve had on a vaccine. It looks almost miraculous to me how quickly we’ve gone from “It would be great to have a vaccine” to “God-willing it looks like approval and distribution are just around the corner.” I was reading recently about one vaccine manufacturer already chartering flights to ship doses out, and got an email from Rite Aid encouraging me to get my shot there when they get them. This is great news. But one note of caution: the vaccine only works when it’s given to people! So we need to keep our masks up, and our guard up, for now. But the cavalry really does appear, thank God, to be on the way.

BROWN: Charles Horton is a practicing physician in Pittsburgh and WORLD’s medical correspondent. Thanks so much for joining us today!

HORTON: My pleasure, Myrna.

(AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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