Here's the science behind the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines

Dec 9 2020, 3:54 pm

Health officials in British Columbia announced how the COVID-19 vaccine would be rolled out across the province on Wednesday afternoon.

With the Pfizer vaccine scheduled to arrive in the coming days and the Moderna vaccine expected in the near future, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explained the science behind the vaccine and how it works.

“It will be the most complex and comprehensive immunization program ever delivered in BC,” she said. “The global community of scientists have collaborated in ways we’ve never experienced before.”

According to Henry, the two vaccines use a new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. She adds that while similar technologies have been worked on for the development of Zika, influenza, and rabies vaccines, “this is the first time that it has been manufactured and shown to work.”

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will contain a piece of the genetic coding for the coronavirus’ spike protein, which officials say has been separated from the virus, synthetically produced, and wrapped in a lipid nanoparticle — a type of molecular envelope.

When the lipid-wrapped mRNA enters our cells it stimulates them to produce their own spike protein.

These new spike proteins will be recognized by our immune cells, which and create antibodies that latch onto them.

When a person is exposed to COVID-19, the body recognizes the virus’ spike proteins of the same shape. From there, the immune system produces the same antibodies that prevent the individual from getting sick. Even if a person is infected, those antibodies prevent the virus from replicating so severe illness can be avoided.

“In other words, the vaccine helps us skip the illness and get straight to producing protective antibodies,” Henry said.

She added that the lipid nanoparticle technology used in the vaccine was actually developed by scientists working at the University of British Columbia, crediting a BC company for allowing this vaccine to be usable.

She also noted that because the vaccine is a synthetic genetic material, it can be manufactured “in large amounts, very quickly.”