Why I’m excited to get a COVID vaccine
I’m terrifically excited to get a COVID vaccine. Not just “willing”, but actually quite excited. And not just because of the beginnings of the return-to-normalcy that it represents – though, yes, that too.
No, I’m excited because of the huge leap forward in science that these vaccines represent, particularly mRNA vaccines. The creation of the COVID vaccines is our generation’s moonshot. A year ago, all of this was theoretically possible – with solid science behind it – but it had never been done. We committed our focus, our political will, and funding – and we got it done.
However, unlike the moon landing, by getting a vaccine we all get to be part of it. This is the most advanced technology humans have developed to date, and we get to be part of it. How exciting is that?
I’ve been terrifically excited as I’ve learned about the science behind the mRNA vaccine. If you write code, I highly recommend reading this article about reverse engineering the source code of the Pfizer vaccine. It’s surprisingly understandable to anyone who’s written software, and the technology is mind-blowingly-cool.
At the very beginning of the vaccine production process, someone uploaded this code to a DNA printer (yes), which then converted the bytes on disk to actual DNA molecules.
TIL that DNA printers are a thing:
(I want one.)
But here’s the bit that really amazed me:
Here we encounter our first surprise. The normal RNA characters are A, C, G and U. U is also known as ’T’ in DNA. But here we find a Ψ, what is going on?
So in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, every U has been replaced by 1-methyl-3’-pseudouridylyl, denoted by Ψ. The really clever bit is that although this replacement Ψ placates (calms) our immune system, it is accepted as a normal U by relevant parts of the cell.
In computer security we also know this trick - it sometimes is possible to transmit a slightly corrupted version of a message that confuses firewalls and security solutions, but that is still accepted by the backend servers - which can then get hacked.
I hadn’t realized that we’d come so far in our understanding of DNA that we can more or less treat it like computer code. We understand the immune system enough to be able to hack around its antivirus “programs”. It’s hard for me to express how much this thrills me; all I can say is that I can’t wait to be a part of this amazing development.
Addressing vaccine fears
Now, there’s a lot of FUD being spread about vaccines in general, and this one in particular. To be clear, the conspiracy theories and outright lies about vaccines are complete bullshit, and not worth my time.
But, there are several common fears that are reasonable, and I want to address them and explain why I’m not at all nervous:
I trust the science. Yes, mRNA vaccines are incredibly cutting-edge and it makes sense that some folks might find that off-putting. But it doesn’t bother me, because I trust the science and scientists behind it.
Here’s a weird analogy, but stick with me: one of the things you learn as a software developer is to be comfortable with abstraction. If I insisted on a literal understanding every level of the stack, I’d never get any work done. At some point, I need to trust that the folks who write the lower levels I’m depending on know that they’re doing. For example, I don’t really understand how PostgreSQL works; I certainly couldn’t implement a relational database myself. I know a few things – it’s written in C; it implements relational theory that has decades of computer science behind it; the maintainers are terrifically smart and hard-working. I’m totally comfortable relying on PostgreSQL not because I understand it perfectly, but because I trust the experts who do.
It’s the same for vaccines. I know a little bit – about mRNA, about how the vaccine teaches our immune system to produce antibodies, that it’s based on decades of vaccine research, and so forth. I trust the experts here, too.
The vaccines weren’t “rushed”. Many people find the less-than-one-year timeline surprising: don’t most drugs take a lot longer to develop? They worry that we cut corners, and that these vaccines are unsafe.
This isn’t quite true. We did “rush”, but that’s “rush” as in “rush delivery”. When you pay for “rush delivery”, you’re paying for faster service. You don’t expect cut corners. (Often, quite the opposite; rush delivery often also includes special handling, right?)
Same here. The nation (and the world) decided that we should spend the money and political effort to get these vaccines here more quickly. No steps were skipped. This was unusually fast, but the “unusual” part is the political will and financial funding, not the science and research.
For example: usually, there’s a fairly long gap – years, sometimes – between the completion of a clinical trial and large-scale drug production. That’s because manufacturing drugs at scale requires up-front investment, and so companies will wait to spin up manufacturing lines until the trials complete. But in this case, government funding made it possible for companies to start building production lines well ahead of the trial completion. Pfizer and Moderna had actually even started producing doses ahead of FDA approval. So once that approval happened, shipments began almost immediately. Normally, this would just be too risky – if the trial had poor results, or if the FDA withheld approval, companies would lose millions. In this case, more funding (both public and private) made this anticipatory production feasible.
We could develop many (most?) drugs this quickly, if the same level of funding and political support was there.
The vaccine side effects are minor compared to the risks of COVID. The risks of COVID are very real, and include death. The morbidity rate for people my age (38) is around 0.1 - 0.3%. That’s low, but it’s not zero. I like being alive, and would generally prefer to take steps to increase my chances of doing so.
On the other hand, the risks of the vaccine are very low. There are no documented fatalities from the vaccines. Most patients experience some flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, nausea) and/or arm pain. These appear to be a bit more severe than many other vaccines, but are short-lived.
I will happily trade a couple of days of feeling crappy for a reduction in my personal mortality rate.
I’m stoked to get vaccinated, and I hope you are too. Even if you’re not as excited as I am, I hope you’ll still go get a vaccine as soon as possible.
I wrote this post after listening to this episode of Sawbones, all about the vaccine rollout. One of the points Dr. McElroy makes is that folks with a platform should consider using their platform to encourage others to get vaccinated. I have a small platform here, but it’s a platform nonetheless, so I’m using it. If you’re in a similar boat, I hope you will too.