How the COVID-19 Vaccines Could Be Created So Quickly: Two Animated Videos Explain the How mRNA Vaccines Were Developed, and How They Work

The world now has COVID-19 vac­cines, of which more and more peo­ple are receiv­ing their dos­es every day. A year and a half ago the world did not have COVID-19 vac­cines, though it was fast becom­ing clear how soon it would need them. The sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of the ones now being deployed around the world took not just less than a year and a half but less than a year, an impres­sive speed even to many of us who nev­er dug deep into med­ical sci­ence. The achieve­ment owes in part to the use of mRNA, a term most of us may recall only dim­ly from biol­o­gy class­es; through the pan­dem­ic, mes­sen­ger ribonu­cle­ic acid, to use its full name, has proven if not the sav­ior of human­i­ty, then at least the very mol­e­cule we need­ed.

One should­n’t get “the idea that these vac­cines came out of nowhere.” On Twit­ter, Dan Rather — these days a more out­spo­ken  fig­ure than ever — calls the preva­lence such a notion “a fail­ure of sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion with trag­ic results,” describ­ing the vac­cines as “the result of DECADES of basic research in MULTIPLE fields build­ing on the BREADTH and DEPTH of human knowl­edge.”

You can get a clear­er sense of what that research has involved through videos like the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed explain­er above. “In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, most vac­cines took well over a decade to research, test, and pro­duce,” says its nar­ra­tor. “But the vac­cines for COVID-19 cleared the thresh­old for use in less than eleven months.” The “secret”? mRNA.

A “nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring mol­e­cule that encodes the instruc­tions for occur­ring pro­teins,” mRNA can be used in vac­cines to “safe­ly intro­duce our body to a virus.” Researchers first “encode tril­lions of mRNA mol­e­cules with instruc­tions for a spe­cif­ic viral pro­tein.” Then they inject those mol­e­cules into a spe­cial­ly designed “nanopar­ti­cle” also con­tain­ing lipids, sug­ars, and salts. When it reach­es our cells, this nanopar­ti­cle trig­gers our immune response: the body pro­duces “anti­bod­ies to fight that viral pro­tein, that will then stick around to defend against future COVID-19 infec­tions.” And all of this hap­pens with­out the vac­cine alter­ing out DNA,

While mRNA vac­cines will “have a big impact on how we fight COVID-19,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Vox video above, “their real impact is just begin­ning.” Their devel­op­ment marked “a turn­ing point for the pan­dem­ic,” but giv­en their poten­tial appli­ca­tions in the bat­tles against a host of oth­er, even dead­lier dis­eases (e.g., HIV), “the pan­dem­ic might also be a turn­ing point for vac­cines.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Fast Can a Vac­cine Be Made?: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

How Do Vac­cines (Includ­ing the COVID-19 Vac­cines) Work?: Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions

How Vac­cines Improved Our World In One Graph­ic

19th Cen­tu­ry Maps Visu­al­ize Measles in Amer­i­ca Before the Mir­a­cle of Vac­cines

Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daugh­ter to Measles, Writes a Heart­break­ing Let­ter about Vac­ci­na­tions: “It Is Almost a Crime to Allow Your Child to Go Unim­mu­nised”

Yo-Yo Ma Plays an Impromp­tu Per­for­mance in Vac­cine Clin­ic After Receiv­ing 2nd Dose

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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