Vanderbilt researcher explains what’s in the Moderna vaccine you might get

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — There are multiple promising COVID-19 vaccines around the world awaiting approval for distribution. Just within the last few days, we learned of Moderna’s success.

That vaccine trial is being led by researchers at Vanderbilt University. Though Pfizer made headlines first, the Moderna vaccine may be a more realistic option.

The doctor leading that clinical trial at Vanderbilt is Spyros Kalams. He has been working on an HIV vaccine during much of his time with the university since 2002. He explained the ins and outs of the COVID-19 vaccine compared to others. It comes down to what’s going in your body.

“The design on the Moderna vaccine was really to protect against illness, COVID-19, and that’s a little bit different than infection,” Kalams said. “We think that they’re the same thing, but there’s infection with the virus, SARS-CoV2, and a lot of people are completely asymptomatic and they can spread it to somebody else, and some people get really, really sick.”

Early on, the goal of Vanderbilt researchers wasn’t to prevent infection. It was to prevent illness.

“How do you protect grandma? How do you protect the 80-year-old with lung disease from dying even if they get infected maybe they’ll have a milder illness? So that’s how the vaccine trial was designed.” he explained.

It worked on both accounts. Currently, the vaccine is considered 94.5% effective. That could change, he said, because the trial only started three months ago in August.

“At least so far in the pandemic, (the virus) doesn’t have nearly as many changes as even influenza has. That doesn’t mean it can’t change or mutate as time goes on. So that was a benefit when you’re making the vaccine,” Kalams said.

The graphic below shows different types of vaccines in trial for COVID-19. The Moderna and Pfizer formulas are genetic-code vaccines.

“I’m not giving you a version of the coronavirus. This is not a weakened version. We certainly have some vaccines that are actual weakened virus or whatever you’re vaccinating against. This is not one of them,” he said.

This vaccine gives you a piece of the genetic material or RNA. Your cells turn it into a protein of the coronavirus. From there, your body recognizes it is unfamiliar or “not human,” according to Kalams. It then creates an antibody against it. The RNA eventually goes away, but the immune response sticks around.

“There are some vaccines that make you feel crummy and some of the ones that we’ve tested and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making a good immune response, but in this case, I think that’s what it means,” he said.

Even with the vaccine created, the trial will continue. Researcher will monitor for long-term side effects, though Kalams doesn’t expect any.

“When did I know we were on to something? Well, when Pfizer released its results a couple weeks ago and I said, ‘Hey the Moderna vaccine is much like the Pfizer vaccine.’,” he said.

It is, except for the distribution. The Pfizer vaccine requires a special freezer that most doctors offices and pharmacies don’t have. The company is planning to shop those freezers out.

“You know, I think it’ll work for our country, but what about other countries? It’ll be more difficult, right? I mean, this is a worldwide problem,” he explained.

The Moderna vaccine doesn’t require any of that. It can last 30 days in a regular freezer and several hours at room temperature. For researchers at Vanderbilt, this is a win.

“The message we got we go OK you can really feel good about yourselves for about a week no longer,” he laughed. “You know, don’t be complacent.”

Both vaccines required two doses spaced a few weeks apart. Kalams said he expects early distribution to begin as soon as next month for those at highest risk. Widespread distribution can be expected in the spring.

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