Arnold Meshkov, MD, discusses the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and gives perspective on the history of how vaccines have been used to help eradicate pandemics.
There is that well-known saying that you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. The COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked our world has engaged some of the brightest among us to use the methods of science to try to reign in this horrible virus. Vaccinations have been used to combat human disease since the 18th century when the Englishman Edward Jenner developed a vaccine to prevent smallpox.
Almost none of us who are alive have seen smallpox—it WAS a very deadly disease, and even survivors were often left them with life-altering facial scars. Why don’t we see smallpox? BECAUSE VACCINES HAVE ERADICATED THE DISEASE! Prior to worldwide vaccination, there were 300 MILLION cases in the 20th century.
Still, there are the doubters worldwide, for reasons that truly escape me. When the pharmaceutical companies went to work on vaccines, they used the very latest in biochemical and molecular biology techniques that rapidly accelerated their ability to produce vaccines.
At the end of the last year, Pfizer and BioNTech together reported their results of a multinational trial in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study involved over 43,000 people in the US, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey. Half of the group received two vaccine doses separated by 21 days, and half were just left to live their normal lives. The vaccine, named BNT162b2, is a lipid nanoparticle that contained the RNA code for the “spike protein” of the COVID-19 virus, so that when it entered the cells of the body, the foreign RNA would get into the cells and start to make numerous copies of not the entire virus, but just the “spike protein.”
When the RNA-manufactured spike protein gets into the bloodstream, the white blood cells recognize it as a foreign invader, and chew it up. Then, they are primed to attack any new “spike proteins” they encounter – like from a viral infection of Covid-19. The white cells have “immunologic memory.”
Do we need to know anything else about the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine? Well, maybe. How about that there was only ONE case of serious Covid-19 in the vaccine group. The major side effect was fatigue – seen in less than one percent of vaccinated patients.
The vaccine was 95% “effective.” Remarkable!
The new vaccines using the RNA code will prove to be a revolution in not just vaccine production but in so many other uses in medicine. The historical track record of vaccinations is a triumph of science and medicine.
The previously mentioned Dr. Jenner discovered that using a strain of cowpox virus, a bovine disease that does not cause human disease, was able to protect humans from smallpox. Later in the 19th century, Louis Pasteur was able to cure rabies, a fearful disease caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system. How did he do that? He infected rabbits with rabies, putting himself and all of his lab workers at great risk, then sacrificed the rabbits, and dried out their spinal cords. He didn’t even know that rabies was a virus, but he knew that the disease attacked the nervous system. He then ground up the spinal cords, put the material into a solution, and injected it into a young boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog. Pasteur’s treatment worked and the world was changed forever.
By the 20th century, scientists and doctors had two examples about how “attenuated” viruses, those of cowpox and rabies, could safely stimulates the human immune system of white blood cells and antibodies to protect against many of the great ravages of human history. Let’s look at the scorecard:
The Covid-19 vaccines will enter this growing list. Tragically, epidemics have killed far more people over history than all of the wars combined. There is more work to be done, and not all viruses can be stopped by vaccines. There is still no vaccine for the AIDS virus, in spite of three decades of research, but there is an effective medication to control the disease. I wish there was a vaccine for the “common cold,” but there are too many different viruses that cause this disease.
We, as a society, need to reflect on our obligation not just to ourselves but to our families, friends, and the rest of our community. There has been a perversion of the idea of the sanctity of the belief in individual freedom by too many people. Your freedom does not entitle you to harm others. Vaccination against Covid-19 is not optional if we want our world to return to “normal,” and the scientific data are there to prove the case.