Special Edition: Virus Watch Out!
How Vaccination Fights COVID-19
For more than a year now, a virus has been dominating every aspect of our lives: COVID-19. That’s why young science enthusiast Zoe Riddle teamed up with Science at Home last December to explore what kids can do to strengthen their immunity “superpower” and become better germ fighters.
Now it seems everyone is talking about COVID-19 vaccines and why they are essential for ending the pandemic, so Zoe has even more questions about immunity…like, how do vaccines teach our immune systems to resist a specific virus? And will she need to get a COVID-19 vaccine like her grandparents did? With the help of Bayer medical experts, we have developed this special edition of Science at Home to answer some common kids’ questions about vaccines and COVID-19 in ways that are easy to understand.
What Kids and Parents Need to Know about Vaccines and COVID-19
As Zoe learned back in December, there are several key actions that anyone can take to more effectively fight any germs including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19: proper handwashing; maintaining healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits; and, when possible, getting vaccinated.
Would you be more excited to properly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds if you could do it with your own custom-made soap? If so, download the instructions here and share a photo of your cool and creative soap designs with @BayerOfficial on Instagram!
When Zoe’s grandparents were recently vaccinated against COVID-19, it triggered many new questions for her. Why are there different “priority groups” and why are grandparents at the top of the list? Why do some COVID-19 vaccines require two shots and others require only one? Will kids need to get a COVID-19 vaccine also? How do vaccines actually work with our immune systems? And are they truly needed to finally end the pandemic?
We know that Zoe is not alone in her curiosity. When she recorded an Instagram video asking other kids to send us their questions, many did just that! Here is Bayer medical expert Dr. Joep Hufman (Medical Lead on Vaccine Collaboration with CureVac) answering one of the most popular questions:
We will answer more of those questions, but first let’s try to break down the basics of how vaccines help our immune system by relating these scientific terms to concepts we already understand – like the classic battle between good guys and bad guys.
The Good Guys: Our Immune System Fighters
If we imagine our body as a fortress, our white blood cells are the defenders who heroically protect us from diseases. Some of these cells act as security forces who are always watching out for intruders and immediately fight them; others have more specialized roles and are part of the second line of defense.
The Bad Guys: Germs!
Our bodies are constantly being exposed to germs all around us and some of them could cause dangerous diseases, primarily bacteria and viruses. Viruses are so simple they’re not even considered alive. They are just tiny mindless bundles of genetic instructions. A virus literally can’t move or do anything UNLESS it touches the surface of a living cell it is designed to attack (for example, if it is coughed or sneezed into the air and then inhaled by another person). As soon as it comes in contact with the right kind of cell, the instructions it carries infect the healthy cell and trick it into making more copies of the virus. Then those new viruses infect more cells, which make more virus copies…and soon they’ve multiplied into an army of “zombie” virus cells that are no longer performing their normal functions. That’s why you get sick!
Antigens and Antibodies: A Match Made in Immunity Heaven
Every type of invading virus or bacteria has a unique antigen identifier that is found on its surface; you could think of it as a mugshot or a fingerprint. Our body’s security forces capture the mugshot of every bad guy they detect, which they share with the second line of defense when they sound the intruder alarm. Some of these special forces, B-cells, immediately go to work producing proteins called antibodies, cellular “robots” that are programmed to attach to that one specific antigen like a puzzle piece. The antibodies start hunting antigens down and when they find one that is a perfect match, they attach to it. But this isn’t a hug; it’s like setting a target for an enemy– the antibody is sending T-cell combat fighters a signal to attack and destroy the infected cell.
Defeated Germs: Gone, But Not Forgotten
The really cool part is that even after the good guys win the battle against a germ, some of them will remember the bad guy’s antigen “mugshot.” If germs with that antigen ever try to return, these white blood cells will recognize them and quickly resume production of the antibodies they already programmed. This memory helps our immune system to move quickly enough to destroy repeat invaders before they can make us terribly sick again.
Vaccination: A WANTED Poster for Our Immune System
The world’s first vaccine was developed after people observed that those who survived a deadly disease never caught it again. One scientist wondered if there was a way to train our body to recognize and fight specific dangerous germs WITHOUT having to first survive a life-threatening test. It turns out that there was! In fact, scientists have discovered more than one way to do this over the past 200 years, as they have continued to develop improved vaccine delivery methods, but each one produces the same result: a wanted poster for the virus.
Let’s take our good guys and bad guys out of a fortress and put them in America’s “Old West” instead. If a gang of outlaws (bad guys) was riding from town to town to steal from people, and the Sheriff’s lawmen (good guys) wanted to warn innocent townspeople to be on the lookout, what would they do? They would put the outlaws’ mugshots on wanted posters! These posters would also include some information about who the bad guys were and what to do if they showed up. Then, if the gang arrived in a town that had received the wanted poster warning, the locals would be ready to fight.
Some vaccines contain inactivated or very weak virus cells. Others contain only tiny fragments of the virus that contain its unique antigen mugshot. When injected into your body, these pieces cannot give you the virus, but still trigger your immune system to respond in the same way. They effectively deliver a wanted poster that not only includes the virus’s mugshot but also instructions for building the antibodies needed to hunt it down and destroy it. If that notorious viral villain ever tries to attack you, your immune system will immediately recognize the bad guy from the wanted poster and begin battle.
How Does an mRNA Vaccine Work?
The newest type of vaccine, recently introduced in the fight against COVID-19, doesn’t use any parts of the actual virus. Instead, it uses mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) to give our immune cells instructions for making a harmless but very recognizable piece of this coronavirus’s antigen: the spike protein found on the surface of the virus. After the protein piece is made, the cell displays it on its surface. Basically, instead of delivering the wanted poster directly, the mRNA vaccine gives our immune cells instructions for printing the poster themselves. Then they read it and respond by making antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19, just as they would with other vaccine types.
Why Should People Get COVID-19 Vaccines?
The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all COVID-19 vaccines, is that people who are vaccinated gain this protection without having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with the virus. When you get vaccinated, you also help protect people around you by making it harder for the virus to spread. When a large enough percentage of the global population has been vaccinated, and this coronavirus runs out of people to easily infect, we may achieve what is known as “herd immunity.”
Scientists and medical experts hope that someday we will not only be able to reach herd immunity, but also completely eradicate SARS-CoV-2 so that this coronavirus can never infect another person with COVID-19. So far, we have only been able to eradicate one human disease worldwide – but it was one of the scariest diseases in human history, which made it an especially monumental victory for science. Let’s learn about it!
The Greatest Battle Story You‘ve Never Heard: Mankind vs. the Smallpox Virus
We can learn more about the development of vaccines – and why they are such a remarkable human achievement – through the story of one of the greatest battles that mankind has ever faced: the fight against smallpox.
The smallpox virus was one of the scariest and most dangerous villains in history. For thousands of years, it made victims horribly sick and killed HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of people, since it spread like wildfire through families and villages with no way to stop it. Up to 30% of smallpox victims died.
What was the difference?
Over time, people observed that anyone who survived smallpox never got it again. They were immune! Based on that observation, some cultures began infecting people with the full-strength smallpox virus on purpose through a scratch on their arm. This practice of “inoculation” also made people sick – in fact, one in 50 died – but many more survived than those who caught smallpox on accident.
The World‘s First Vaccine
In 1796, a scientist named Edward Jenner noticed that farm workers who had caught cowpox from cows were also immune to smallpox. Cowpox was not deadly, so Jenner tried inoculating test patients with the live cowpox virus instead. It worked! People intentionally infected with cowpox got only mildly sick and afterward were immune to the deadly and terrifying smallpox virus! This discovery resulted in the world’s very first “vaccine.” In fact, “vaccine” comes from the name for the cowpox virus, “vaccinia.”
Even though this vaccine was about to score a huge victory in the battle against smallpox, many people were against this new idea at first. They didn’t understand it and that made them afraid. Lots of false information was spread by “anti-vaccination” groups who wanted to scare people into not getting vaccinated. For example, they said it would turn children into cows! Obviously, that did not happen. What did happen is that the number of smallpox deaths was soon cut in half and millions of deaths were prevented.
But…the battle wasn’t over yet. The first smallpox vaccine certainly wasn’t perfect and scientists continued to work to improve it. They eventually learned how to create vaccines that cannot actually make people sick, but still can deliver the “wanted poster” that activates our immune system fighters to prepare for battle. Today’s vaccines are very safe and have prevented untold amounts of pain and suffering for families around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that vaccination prevents 2-3 million deaths each year. Most people don’t even realize how good we have it now because no one alive today remembers what life was like before vaccines…lucky for us!
Goodbye Smallpox Virus – and Good Riddance!
In 1980, less than 200 years after the development of the first smallpox vaccine, that vicious viral villain that terrorized humans for thousands of years was soundly defeated by science. It was declared eradicated – completely destroyed – making mankind the winner in one of history’s longest and toughest battles. To date, smallpox is the ONLY human disease that has ever been completely eradicated, but public health officials hope to add more to the list…maybe even COVID-19 someday. As long as enough people are willing to get vaccinated against infectious diseases, the ultimate victory against other life-threatening viruses is possible.
Additional Questions about Vaccines and COVID-19
Since there is currently a limited number of COVID-19 vaccines available, public health experts recommend that the people who are most vulnerable to getting very sick from COVID-19, either due to higher exposure (like healthcare workers), or due to weaker immune systems, should get the vaccine sooner than everyone else. Scientists have found that with many elderly people, their germ-fighting teams aren’t successful at fighting off COVID-19 as younger people’s immune systems. So it makes sense to first vaccinate our beloved grandparents and other older adults in order to boost their germ-fighting power.
We cannot tell you whether or not you can visit your grandparents, but we can tell you this: getting the vaccine does not mean that anyone is automatically invincible. It typically takes a few weeks after vaccination for the body to produce enough antibodies to be protected. Even after that, public health experts advise that it is important to continue practicing the same procedures for physical distancing, masking and avoiding indoor gatherings until community spread drops low enough for us to return to normal. Vaccinations will help get us there, but they are not a license to give up on the other tools that are also helping.
This is a very fast moving and ongoing topic (as of March 2021): Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 can also make children ill and that children can also transmit the virus. Children should of course also be vaccinated as soon as vaccines used in adults have shown to also be safe and effective in young people and children. Clinical studies to evaluate this are already ongoing for adolescents (12 to 18 years) and are just in the process to start for children (0 to 11 years).
If you have ever had a vaccination before, it will likely feel exactly the same – a brief sharp pinch, and then it’s over. Thinking about it is usually worse than actually feeling it, right? Sometimes people will experience minor side effects in the days after they receive a shot, such as swelling or soreness in the arm where you got the shot, fatigue, headaches, or even a mild fever. These side effects usually don’t last long and are common after a vaccination; they mean that the injection is causing your body to mount an immune response and suggest that the vaccine is doing its job.
A number of vaccines require multiple doses, given weeks or months apart, so it’s not just COVID-19 vaccines. When a vaccine requires two shots, the first shot helps your body recognize the virus and gets your immune system ready, and the second one builds up memory about the virus, strengthening your immune response. It’s like getting a driver’s license. First, you need to complete a theoretical test, but you also need a second one to prove that you can put what you learned into practice. If you are given a two-shot vaccine but never go back for the second shot, your body will not be fully protected against COVID-19.
Medicines that we swallow are broken down in the stomach by our digestive juices and stomach acids, which doesn’t affect those medicines. But some other medicines, like vaccines, need to be injected so that they can bypass the stomach acids and enter the bloodstream quickly.
People are often afraid of things when they don’t understand how they work – there’s probably something in your life you’ve been afraid of for that very reason – perhaps spiders or a noisy furnace in your basement. But then after you push yourself to learn more about them, you realize that they’re not really scary at all. That’s why it’s important to ask questions and then be open to listen to the advice of experts, who are the people who know the most about certain topics. They can help explain the science behind how things work & give us the gift of knowledge, which is like another kind of superpower that can drive away fear!
The World Health Organization says that the impact of COVID-19 vaccines on the pandemic will depend on several factors. These include the effectiveness of the vaccines; how quickly they are approved, manufactured, and delivered; the possible development of other variants and how many people get vaccinated. While trials have shown several COVID-19 vaccines to have high levels of efficacy, like all other vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines will not be 100% effective. That said, public health officials don’t believe it will be possible to end the pandemic without the help of vaccines.
You can continue to practice the same healthy habits that we have all learned over the past year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask in public, social distancing from people who don’t live with you, and avoiding crowds. And take good care of your body so you can keep your immune system healthy and strong! Click here to learn more with Zoe about How to Be a Better Germ Fighter.