Even though we are well into the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, some people are still understandably hesitant to get vaccinated. Science moved at an unprecedented pace to develop the vaccines, and those of us who work in scientific fields often marvel at how vaccines that work so well emerged in such a short time.
One persistent concern involves the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Some think that vaccines may alter their DNA. As a board-certified genetic counselor, I can explain to you why this won’t happen.
The RNA-DNA Connection
Let’s start with some basic science. As many of us know, the function of RNA (ribonucleic acid) is to carry out messages from our DNA to create proteins needed for basic cellular activity in our body. It’s a natural process that’s critical to human life.
In order for DNA to make proteins, it must convert to mRNA (messenger RNA) so that this protein synthesis can occur. This mRNA conversion occurs constantly and it’s happening in you right now as you read this. DNA must convert to mRNA because mRNA is much more accessible to the body than DNA, and this is a required step to make all the proteins we need.
Why the mRNA Vaccine Doesn’t Alter Your DNA
In order for the vaccine to alter your DNA, the RNA would need to first enter the nucleus of the cell, which requires a specific enzyme or key. Next, the RNA would need to be reverse transcribed back into DNA and then this DNA would need to be inserted into the existing DNA in the nucleus, which also requires special enzymes or keys. All of this would need to occur very quickly, as RNA is very unstable.
For these reasons, there is strong evidence that the vaccine is safe.
How the mRNA Vaccine Works
With mRNA vaccines, a copy of a specific mRNA sequence is used by your body as instructions to create the spike protein that is unique to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That mRNA sequence is encapsulated into a fat molecule to keep it stable. Once mRNA completes its messaging duties, it dies off naturally.
The mRNA sequence encourages your body to produce the spike protein found on the surface of the virus. Your immune system is then alerted to something foreign and mounts a response to the spike protein and builds antibodies to attack it.
Why mRNA Vaccines Are Safe
Some also have the concern about something “unnatural” being injected into the body. The biochemical structure of RNA is a natural compound, so the mRNA copy in the vaccine has the same chemical make-up as what’s in your body at this time.
It’s the sequence or the instructions within the copy that’s different. Your body hasn’t seen that sequence before, and that’s why your immune system mounts a response to the protein that message created.
Some may then ask: Isn’t the sequence unnatural? Isn’t there risk?
We encounter different sequences every day. It’s the same as when our body encounters this year’s flu virus and other viruses and bacteria that reside in the environment and on your skin. You will encounter the COVID-19 sequence eventually, whether naturally or through vaccination because we know the virus is very transmissible. But data also now shows us that there’s a lesser chance of being hospitalized with fewer side effects if you are vaccinated as opposed to building an immune response through natural infection.
Of course, there is a small part of the population for whom the mRNA vaccines are not recommended. Those who are allergic to Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), found in both mRNA vaccines, should not receive an mRNA vaccine. In addition, anyone who has had severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to vaccines or injectable medications should speak to their healthcare provider before receiving the vaccine. The Pfizer mRNA vaccine is approved for children 12 and older, the Moderna mRNA vaccine for those 18 and older. So, the vaccines are not yet available to populations younger than 12.
The Need to Vaccinate
While hesitancy and questioning are normal, especially since the vaccines were developed so quickly, more data is consistently demonstrating that the vaccines are safe and effective. The CDC has created materials to help healthcare providers talk to patients about concerns. There are also FAQs, vaccine safety educational brochures, and fact sheets available to help healthcare providers and consumers.
It’s important to remember that as more people vaccinate, we protect vulnerable populations who cannot be vaccinated. Experts have estimated that if a minimum of 70% of the population is immune to COVID-19, either through vaccination or natural infection, a herd immunity effect can be seen with a dramatic decline in cases and protection of those few who cannot be vaccinated. Thanks to vaccination efforts, we’re already seeing these declines, but it’s important to remember that the virus is not fully eradicated and there’s still more work to be done. The faster we all become vaccinated, the closer we get to living the normal life experience we enjoyed prior to the pandemic.
About the author: Gemma Nelson, M.S., CGC is a genetic analyst at InformedDNA. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2015 with a master’s degree in Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development with an emphasis in Genetic Counseling. Gemma’s past work experience includes direct patient care in the neurology and cardiology specialties as well as genetic test utilization management. She has continued her utilization management work at InformedDNA, using evidence-based benefits management solutions for multiple health plan clients.
If you’d like to learn more about InformedDNA and the expert genetics services we offer for health plans, health systems and hospitals, or pharmaceutical companies, please get in touch – just fill out the short form below, or give us a call: 844-846-3763.