Keep Calm and Add New Knowledge


I’ve been asked, a few times, to write about the ongoing pandemic and assorted concerns. There is a lot of fear in the world. On one hand, I do understand. It’s a tiny thing, too small to see, and we instinctually fear disease, always have, always will. 

That being said. I’ve written before, early on, that the one thing we should not do was panic. Well, the world did. As a result, we have a mess on our hands. That, I can’t and won’t address in this post. I’m tired, so tired, and will be tired for some time to come. I’m thinking I’ll start doing some video chats as they will be less tiring than sitting here writing a blog post. Which should tell you right there just how tired and distracted I am. The thing is, I need to write this. So I am. 

Firstly, a little primer (heh!) on DNA, RNA, and proteins. 

This was the first question I got: what is an RNA virus? 

In order to explain that, let me back up a bit to the central dogma of DNA. DNA is a double-stranded, highly compacted, coiled helix. Just unwinding is a specialized chore, and then what? You have the code, what do you do with it? That’s where RNA comes in. RNA ‘reads’ the DNA and then sends the signals to collect the amino acids that are processed into proteins. Proteins are the building blocks – very much like legos, or tinker-toys if you are as old as I am – of the cells. We are all made of proteins, wonderfully and fearfully knitted together intricately. And every bit of that was written on your DNA for the RNA to decode and program into the amino acids. 

So an RNA virus comes along, unlocks the cell – a difficult task in itself – and enters with the intent to commit grand theft larceny. The virus hijacks our DNA to produce the proteins it needs to assemble lots and lots of clones of itself. In the end, the cell is so full of these viral clones, it bursts, and the viruses erupt out to start over on another cell. 

The vaccines that are currently in use for immunity against the Covid-19 virus are mRNA based. The small m stands for messenger, as that is the role it plays in the cells. In the vaccines, the mRNA is a small part of the whole RNA virus. So you are not getting the live virus, the vaccine is not going to hijack your DNA like the real thing does, and it is certainly not genetic manipulation of your own body. What it is, is the equivalent of holding a scent to a bloodhound’s nose, and saying ‘here, boy, this is what you need to sniff out.’ In order to give your immune system an idea of what is a foe it has never met before. If that dog has met a bad guy, and been hit by him, by golly he remembers and he’s going to put up an awful fuss if he sees him or even smells him again. But to train our inner bloodhounds when they need to go to war, we need to give them the mRNA clues to sniff out the real thing – in this case, the spikes on the protein outer coats of the virus. Those infamous red knotted things you see on the graphics of the Covid-19 virus. 

So cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war… 

The vaccines are, as most vaccines do, setting up an early warning system so the body is prepared when it meets the real thing. In the case of the mRNA vaccine (and others, but I’m specifically talking about this one), there need to be two doses, one to prime the system, the second to fully bring it online. Is it safe? yes, it is. There were almost 45 thousand people in one trial alone (the Pfizer BioNTech clinicals) and it met all the standards. Can it cause an allergic reaction? Nearly anything can. The odds are small, and if you suffer from severe allergies, you should talk to your doctor. 

What if the virus mutates? It already has. Viruses like coronavirus adapt relatively rapidly, and usually in the direction of reduced lethality. This one is no exception. It is an unthinking process, but in the real world, the favors go to the virus who can keep their host ambulatory and spreading the virus particles to other hosts longest. In other words, the sicker you get, or if you die, the strain of virus you have ends with you. The more you are out and walking around passing it on? The better that viral strain spreads and survives. We will see, in due course, this virus become ‘just another cold.’ That isn’t where we are now, though. The virus is ‘novel’ which doesn’t mean it’s fictional. A novel disease is new to humanity. The first wave is the worst. There is little (yes, there is some. Feline coronavirus, among others, can convey partial immunity to Covid-19) immunity. People who are vulnerable due to other conditions are weak, and they fall before the wildfire of an infectious disease like dying trees in a forest. Unfortunately, with this virus, the lethality is heavily weighted toward the elderly and ill. The death rate plotted against age looks like that hockey stick… all almost level from young through middle age, then shooting up like a handle. 

So, if you aren’t going to die from it, why get vaccinated? Because death is not the only fate in life. Covid-19, like many other sub-lethal illnesses, can and does have long-term lasting ill effects. It is difficult to recover from a severe case. Trust me, you don’t want to have to do that if you don’t need to. Also, it can and does trigger autoimmune responses (it is, again, not alone in this, but it’s a factor you want to avoid) in those who have recovered from it. Personally, I almost certainly had it in March (there’s a long rant about data here I’m too tired to type up) and this is what I’m dealing with; fatigue, likely related to this and stress, and asthma that moved from ‘pre’ to full blown dear lord it hurts to breathe and I can’t think. You don’t want that. You really don’t. 

I’ll never advocate that everyone should have the vaccine. There are good and sufficient reasons for some people not to try it – see allergies, above. And I would certainly oppose any move toward making it mandatory, forcing it on anyone, or requiring vaccination papers to allow travel, work, or anything else. However, the data looks solid. Which is more than I can say about the early days of this disease… but that’s another rant. This is just about the vaccine. 

Be calm. Look at the information. Then make the decision you need for your best interests. But don’t operate out of fear. There is a lot of fear-mongering going on, and if nothing else? Shut off the news. Shun social media if you have to. Reach out to friends. Give someone a call. 


5 thoughts on “Keep Calm and Add New Knowledge

  1. I sure do appreciate the even handed summation. In fact you have made me decide that I won’t be jumping up and down and trying to rush to the front of the line but I won’t turn it down if the insurance offers it. Because of those less than lethal effects. I wouldn’t mind knowing if I have had a brush with the WuFlu but not enough to bother to deal with such tests as have been presented so far given their “accuracy” rates. But I won’t shun the vaccine. But I will also refuse to carry any damn papers about it.

    1. Reasonable. I can say that my anecdote is backed by several friends sharing similar experiences and it’s sucky. Who knows when we will see the data on the follow-on effects though? Me, I have had no less than four doctors refuse to treat my lingering issues. Because they are mewling cowards who would rather sit safe in their office than actually risk treating patients. So yeah. There are a lot of reasons the vaccine is a good idea. Lack of health’care’ by big businesses hiding behind their healthcare ‘heroism’ is one. This is not the year to get sick.

  2. Thank you for this. I trust you to tell what you know, and admit what you don’t know.

    Like Jolie above, I don’t intend to jump in the line to get this vaccine, but barring the sudden appearance of serious side-effects, I’ll wait for it to be more readily available. I’m pretty sure I had this in Dec/Jan (I’d have to look at my travel schedule to be sure when – I just remember wearing a mask to fly for the first time ever because I couldn’t stop coughing). The cough is till here, though not as bad, and wearing a mask for more than a few minutes, and while doing anything other than sitting quietly will trigger coughing fits for at least a day, so I’m glad to be living in Florida where sanity has more to say in the government’s reactions to this thing.

  3. I will probably get the vaccine eventually. For patients that have my particular cancer, there’s some question about its efficacy. Multiple myeloma affects the very cells that produce antibodies. One specialist at UCLA believes the vaccine is safe enough for patients, but might not be effective.
    I’ve just had a stem cell transplant, so I’m growing a new immune system, and it should respond to the vaccine in a normal fashion.

    On another page, the technology underlying this vaccine promises to be amazing. We may be looking at the ability to program a virus to address any arbitrary agent. Right now, I’m on a monoclonal antibody that’s designed to attack an antigen on my cancer. What if a vaccine could prime the immune system to attack that same antigen? Maybe in a few years, cancer patients will be given a cocktail of vaccines that target multiple antigens on their cancer, effectively curing it.

    Things are going to be very interesting.

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