Vaccines are emerging this month in the fight against COVID-19. Targeting the virus is an intensive process, according to hospital officials.
By Joe Boyle
With the emergence of vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, people are reminded by one local hospital administrator that targeting a virus is an intensive process.
"Viruses — just their nature — are a very rapidly growing and changing type of a germ or germ protein," according to Cindy Deuser, MSHA, BSN, RN, and director of quality and safety, OSF Healthcare Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Evergreen Park. "And what happens is that they grow over time."
Over the course of the year, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly spread across the country, accounting for nearly 15 million cases and nearly 300,000 deaths in the U.S. since March. Now, the U.S. is nearing a significant milestone: a COVID-19 vaccine. However, what exactly is a vaccine, and how do they work?
First, a vaccine needs to be developed. This is done by studying the virus, which mutate and change over time. Creating a vaccine is a long process. This is also why each year, for example, a different flu vaccine is created in order to best protect the community from the current strain of the virus.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccines contain weakened or inactive parts of a particular organism (antigen) that then triggers an immune response within the body, and newer vaccines contain the blueprint for producing antigens rather than the antigen itself.
"What happens is your body begins to build up antibodies," Deuser said. "And these antibodies are proteins and they're going to begin to identify — should you become contagious — it will identify those germs and begin breaking the germ down so that you will not become ill. Or if you do become ill, it would be less intense."
Contrary to the belief of some individuals, a vaccine does not infect its recipient with the actual virus. Instead vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this type of infection almost never causes illness, but it does cause the immune system to produce T-lymphocytes and antibodies.
"What happens when your immune system starts to react to the vaccine? You may be feeling a sore arm, you may feel just a little bit of a mild fever coming on — but that is really not the disease itself or the virus that is giving that to you. It's really your body's immune system reacting to that little piece of germ that was entered into you for the purpose of developing immunity," Deuser added.
According to WHO, a vaccine works by reducing the risks of getting a disease by working the body's natural defenses to build protection. The immune system responds to a vaccine by invading the germ, such as the virus or bacteria. It also produces antibodies, which are proteins produced naturally by the immune system to fight the disease.
Vaccination is a safe and effective way to prevent disease and save lives, according to WHO.
According to WHO, when receiving a vaccination, individuals are not just protecting themselves, but also those around them. Some people, like those who are seriously ill, are advised not to get certain vaccines. They then depend on the rest of us to get vaccinated and help reduce the spread of disease.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination will continue to be important. The pandemic has caused a decline in the number of children receiving routine immunizations, which could lead to an increase in illness and death from preventable diseases, according to WHO.
WHO has urged counties to ensure that essential immunization and health services continue, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Not only vaccines protect individuals from developing severe illness from a virus, they also protect the community as a whole.
"So if you were to be in contact with somebody who was contagious, you can now fight that disease off," Deuser said. "And just by the virtue of doing that, you will be protecting anybody around you."