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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

A Chip on Your Shoulder

Written by Kelvin Wu

Edited by Pooja Suganthan

It seems like so long ago that the idiom “a chip on one’s shoulder” was just a saying for someone who harbors a grudge or grievance. The amount of people during this pandemic writing about the “microchip” that comes with the COVID-19 vaccine was alarming enough to track attention. What seemed to be the answer to this two year-long pandemic became nothing but a clear distinction of people’s ideals. Although there is not a specific percentage of COVID-19 vaccinations necessary for herd immunity, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Houston Methodist, Dr. Ashley Drews, approximates at least 70% with some estimates ranging up to 90%. At the moment, only 56% of America is fully vaccinated. The question is, what is stopping the other half from getting vaccinated?

The mRNA vaccine alters your genes!

Cells have been thoroughly studied, way before the time of COVID-19. A student taking biology, whether in college, or even high school, may recall that DNA (the genetic material) is packed within the nucleus as chromosomes. To fit in the nucleus, they are coiled up around proteins which explains why they are extremely tightly packed, making it very difficult for other factors to bind. However, mRNA is to be translated by free ribosomes in the cytoplasm (the fluid within the cell) which is a process that is carried out outside of the nucleus. This spatial difference is the reason why people should not have any worries about whether or not there is even a chance of mutagenesis of their DNA. They do not enter the same intermembrane space which means there is no chance that getting vaccinated will affect your genes.

But the mRNA vaccine is a new work in progress, how can we trust it?

The use of mRNA has been around for decades, starting with the first successfully transcribed mRNA which has led to protein production in mice (Wolff JA, et al., 1990). The mRNA vaccines were not utilized earlier due to lack of attention and funding. A problem that arose when creating an mRNA vaccine was its instability when translating the mRNA from bench work to bedside, where it would be injected into actual patients. Over the years, there have been many post-transcriptional modifications into what has become the mRNA vaccine today; many of which students learn in college biology classes now, like the modified 5’ guanine nucleotide cap, regulatory elements in the 5’ and 3’ UTR (untranslated region), 3’ poly-A tail, etc. However, due to the pandemic and several scientists who have laid the groundwork for mRNA-related studies, the vaccine had finally come to fruition and soon mass produced. If anyone still feels that they cannot trust the vaccine, the National Institutes of Health has reported that within the first five months of the vaccine being available, approximately 139,000 deaths have been prevented. Furthermore, it is also estimated that preventing those deaths is akin to preventing the use of $625 billion and $1.4 trillion dollars worth of medical equipment and such.

Why would I want to inject the actual virus in myself? Sounds counterproductive.

As opposed to vaccinations prior to COVID-19, the mRNA does not carry the actual virus nor does it even need to enter the nucleus to be created. Generally, the vaccines that have been administered until this mRNA vaccine contained a miniscule, non-harmful portion of the pathogen’s surface called glycoproteins, or commonly known as spike proteins. Our immune system fights off pathogens constantly and evolves each time by creating antibodies that recognize pathogens through their glycoproteins. In simpler terms, it is similar to facilitating a factory to create a product. Typically, if you tell the workers to create something they’ve never seen before, it will most likely be ineffective the first time. However, if the workers were given the product (the pathogen) in advance and along with 2 to 3 weeks to take the product apart and analyze it, the workers would be able to recognize the product for themselves and prepare accordingly (the antibodies). What differs with the mRNA vaccine is that rather than being given the product to take apart and analyze, the COVID-19 vaccine provides the blueprint itself (the mRNA strand). In general, mRNA is translated by ribosomes to create proteins. Ribosomes can do this because the mRNA already has the necessary information taken from DNA. Using the factory analogy, rather than providing the product (pathogen), workers are given the steps (mRNA) to create the product themselves and within 2-3 weeks again, the workers will recognize the product and prepare accordingly (antibodies) just the same as regular vaccines. More specifically, they are given the mRNA strand that is translated by ribosomes to create spike proteins to help elicit the desired response from our immune system.

All in all, it is always encouraged to do your own research. In retrospect, it is slightly ironic that as internet usage became more widespread, parents advised their children to not believe everything they see on the internet. However, many of the mentioned people will believe an uncredible article that claims COVID-19 vaccines contain a tracking microchip planted by the government. Recent news sparked discussion of unfairness in the workfield as United Airlines fired nearly 600 workers because they refused to get vaccinated. However, looking at this from another perspective, 99% of their workforce have provided proof of vaccination, which is a miraculous turnout. As America moves forward with a new set of guidelines that enforce stricter proof of vaccinations, where does that leave the people who remain adamant against the CDC’s vaccination efforts?


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