RCCD science instructors discuss COVID-19 vaccines

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Professors held a meeting to educate and dispel rumors about the COVID-19 vaccine. ( Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
By Holland Snipes

Does anyone you know believe the COVID-19 vaccine works by changing a recipient’s DNA?

As vaccinations roll out, a Zoom conference March 19 featuring Riverside Community College District faculty aimed to educate and dispel such myths. The event, hosted by the Riverside City College STEM Engagement Center, featured guest speakers with scientific backgrounds from the district’s three campuses.

The meeting began with a brief true or false quiz about common misconceptions students or their families might have, such as vaccines causing autism. It aimed to tackle those ideas through a detailed discussion of the virus and vaccination.

Lisa Thompson-Eagle, microbiologist and Riverside City College instructor, explained the history of pandemics and that they are not new. 

“Increasing civilization advancements created new problems,” Thompson-Eagle said.

She said the growth of the human population and gathering of people through new forms of transportation allowed for diseases to spread quicker, leading to pandemics like the current one. 

Thompson-Eagle’s prime example in explaining vaccines was the history of the importance of the smallpox vaccine to the world. She explained the severity of the illness and provided graphic but necessary images of the consequences of an infection. 

Monica Gutierrez, a Norco College biology instructor and biochemist, explained the general biological functions of viruses, as well as COVID-19 and its origins. 

She explained that coronaviruses are not new. The presentation mentioned that coronaviruses have “been around for 10,000 years in birds and bats.” She gave the examples of the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 in Asia and the 2012 MERS-CoV in the Middle East. 

Gutierrez noted that the COVID-19 virus can be mild for many and fatal to others. The virus affects everyone differently based on their immune systems and any preexisting conditions they may have, and around 10% of those infected have long term consequences after their infection.

“An uncontrolled viral infection leads to an inflammatory response and then lung damage and destruction,” Gutierrez said.

Jeffrey Julius, a microbiology instructor at Moreno Valley College, explained the differences between the current vaccines available. 

He discussed what is in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as well as the development of the Johnson and Johnson one-shot vaccine.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA, which passes on instructions to our cells on how to create a “spike protein.” Cells recognize that this protein does not belong and, when the body is exposed to COVID-19 in the future, it will have already started creating protective antibodies.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is an adenovirus vectored one, meaning it uses the common cold and a gene specific to COVID-19 as a vector to make cells recognize the virus and build spike proteins. 

Julius then explained the concepts of herd immunity and how mutations can run rampant if the disease is allowed to spread uncontrolled, stressing the importance of vaccines during his entire segment.

Henry Peel, a Cal Poly Pomona microbiology student and virus-virology researcher, went through the three phases of vaccine trials and provided data on the effectiveness of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines by Phase 3, 94.1% and 95%, respectively.

He concluded with data on the outlook of COVID-19 variants that have appeared, adding that Moderna has already started on an updated vaccine for variants, similar to how the flu vaccine is updated every year.

More information can be found at http://www.cdc.gov.

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