Ron Richterman: What Are mRNA Vaccines and How Do They Work

Speaker Friday, July 15, 2022

The COVID-19 vaccines undoubtedly changed the direction of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Scientists developed the vaccines in record time as the original estimates suggested it would be 2023 or 2025 before they would be useful. At first, they had over 90% effectiveness at preventing infection–rapidly slowing down the infection and hospitalization rate. Currently, they are still one of the best tools for preventing severe infections and especially hospitalizations from this disease. The technology and knowledge developed to create these vaccines could have important implications for the future of medicine.

However, the term mRNA might sound dangerous. After all, we don’t want anything messing with our cellular DNA, and viruses can be considered RNA or DNA depending on the type. The old polio vaccines used a version of the virus that had been altered to prevent it from spreading inside of us, but these COVID-19 vaccines are not “live” or attenuated viruses.

At the risk of a spoiler alert, the vaccine is safe and was developed in record time because our scientists have figured out how all of these questions interrelate. In the past few years, scientists have developed impressive imaging at the cellular level and an amazing ability to decode the instructions in DNA and RNA. While mRNA, RNA, and DNA can share a lot of basic building blocks at the chemical level, there are also significant differences. The similarities allow scientists to use their recently developed tools to determine in record time how a particular virus’s genetic code creates its physical structure and how it mechanically works to overtake our cells. The differences between mRNA, RNA, and DNA allow scientists to safely replicate just enough of very specific parts of the virus to train our immune system to fight the virus. It is a really intriguing process that could have a lot of ramifications for future medical uses.

Ron Richterman is a retired radiologist and member of our club. The ability of science to develop a vaccine so quickly and safely intrigued Ron. However, Mr. Richterman could also tell that there was likely a ton of misinformation being spread about these viruses on one side or the other. So he set out to study the medical and scientific information to determine where the truth lay.

And the first Rotary test is “Is it the truth?”

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