The COVID-19 pandemic saw vaccine research, development, and distribution at an unprecedented speed. Vaccines are essential for fortifying our immune systems against viruses and diseases. Understanding how vaccines are created today can help you make informed decisions about your health in the future and prepare for the next pandemic.

Types of Vaccines

All vaccines contain an antigen, a component of the virus you’re trying to fortify against. These antigens trigger the immune response. Not all vaccines are designed the same; modern vaccine design includes genetic components and requires high-quality manufacturing services such as buffer management, reliable laboratory equipment, aliquoting services, rapid and efficient distribution, and much more.

Attenuated Vaccines

Before using genetics in vaccine design, many vaccines were created using an attenuated form of the virus that was weakened to the point where it will still trigger an immune response without replicating within the human body. These viruses are attenuated by being passed through animal cells and being slightly altered with each pass through until it is too weak to replicate in human cells properly. Live attenuated vaccines run the risk of the weakened virus reverting to a replicable form and infecting the patient. Killed or inactive vaccines use a dormant pathogen that is killed using heat or chemicals but is still physically intact and can be used to trigger an immune response to the pathogen without any risk of that pathogen reverting to a replicable form. Inactive vaccines tend to have shorter protection than live vaccines, requiring regular booster shots. Toxoids are similar to inactive vaccines but are used to protect against diseases caused by toxins produced b bacteria. These vaccines are often considered inactive but different because they hold stagnant toxins rather than a dormant virus.

Subunit and Conjugate Vaccines

Subunit vaccines are created using only a part of the pathogen to trigger an immune response. These vaccines use only specific proteins within the pathogen to act as the antigen in the vaccine. These vaccines can also be built using genetic engineering. The genetic code for a vaccine protein is placed into another virus to reproduce and create infected cells, which metabolize and produce the vaccine protein. The result is called a recombinant vaccine. Conjugate vaccines, on the other hand, are similar but created using two components of the virus, the inactive piece of the virus and the coat of the bacteria, which is linked to the carrier protein. Combining these pieces typically creates a more robust immune response than subunit vaccines.

mRNA Vaccines

Two of the most successful COVID vaccines in the US were made using the mRNA vaccine design method. mRNA vaccines were first designed in the 1990s using genetic engineering. mRNA or messenger RNA is the strand in DNA that holds the blueprints for protein creation. Scientists can insert this mRNA into a vaccine where the body’s immune system will uncover the ‘blueprints’ for those anti-viral proteins, triggering an immune response that produces those proteins and creates antibodies, and activates specialized cells that kill any coronaviruses bearing similar proteins structures.

Development and Distribution

Operation Warp Speed in the US pushed the rapid production of COVID vaccines at an unprecedented rate. Typically, vaccine production takes many years to complete. Still, due to the quick spread and urgent nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen researchers forced to conduct multiple stages of development simultaneously. Developers are using artificial intelligence programs to help them identify certain genetic compounds and design their mRNA vaccines. Research and development are only a part of the process of protecting you. Once vaccines are developed and deemed safe for use, manufacturing, and distribution must be considered to reach everyone who needs a vaccine.

Understanding the basics of vaccine development can help you make informed decisions about your health in the years to come. COVID-19 was not our last pandemic, be prepared to fortify your immune system with vaccines in the future by understanding the science behind their development.

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