Virus protection

Neuruppin, 5 March 2021

Stefanie Oess, professor of biochemistry, describes development of Corona vaccine in online lecture with more than 250 participants.

Guest commentary by André Wirsing, MAZ

An initial practical hint: The analgesic Paracetamol reduces possible side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Corona and is safe, so Stefanie Oess, professor of biochemistry at the Brandenburg Medical School (MHB). 235 participants had registered for her online lecture on Thursday evening, but in many cases entire groups of students and others gathered in front of the screen. The somewhat cumbersome title “Biochemistry Update Corona Vaccines” contained sufficient keywords to generate interest.

As a first step in approaching the topic of vaccines, she described the structure of the Sars-CoV-2 virus as a large genome consisting of 30,000 nucleotides, i.e. building blocks of bases, sugar and phosphate, and only one single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid). The carrier of genetic information in humans, animals and plants, however, is DNA with double-stranded base pairing. The flow of genetic information is in one direction only, from DNA to the various RNA, to proteins consisting of amino acids. This should be made clear to sceptics who fear that Corona vaccines might harm or alter human DNA. Moreover, DNA is located in the cell nucleus, whereas infection processes occur in the cell plasma. The virus enters the cell where it copies its information and forms new viruses which can leave the cell.

Humans have built-in natural protective functions: antigen-presenting cells which recognize pathogens, T helper cells and B lymphocytes that release antibodies, and cytotoxic T cells that kill infected cells. Stefanie Oess: “These are the intended responses with vaccinations.” She readily admits that experts assume with certainty that the virus mutants from UK, South Africa and Brazil will prevail; there is still no explanation at the molecular level as to why these mutants are more successful. But the current tremendous pace in research will yield results within weeks. The same applies to vaccines. Almost all producers focus on the spike protein – the antennae protruding from the virus models. This phenomenon is known from the Sars-CoV-1 virus which occurred early in the 2000s.

There are different platforms as a basis for the development of vaccines.

  • Weakened and inactivated Sars-CoV-2 viruses: weakened by mutations or inactivated via chemical treatment or heat. This is a lengthy process, and the respective vaccines have not been developed so far “because great care has to be taken to ensure that they are really inactivated”. Researchers in India and China are currently working on such serums.
  • Viral vectors are genetically engineered weakened viruses carrying the gene for the spike protein. Johnson & Johnson and also AstraZeneca have developed these vaccines.
  • Viral proteins or particles are won from Sars-CoV-2, primarily the spike protein as soluble protein or virus-like particles.
  • DNA and mRNA vaccines: here the genetic information for the spike protein is built into lipid nanoparticles; triggers of biosynthesis in the cell (gene expression). “Production of the protein is left to the cell.” Producers: Biontech/Pfizer and Moderna.

The biochemist speaks in defense of the much discussed and occasionally rejected AstraZeneca vaccine: “It is based on nucleic acid, consists in a genetically modified virus, and is in no way inferior to the mRNA vaccines.” It offers a hundred percent protection from serious progressions and also from the British mutation B1.1.7. Large-scale studies with millions of test subjects in Scotland documented that the first dose already offered 94% protection from hospitalization, compared to “only” 85% for Biontech, so Prof. Oess.

She answered questions from her online audience, e.g.: Are the lipid nanoparticles in the mRNA vaccines really safe? “These particles as carriers of mRNA have been used in tumor vaccines for the past two decades. They have passed all safety checks. It is actually immaterial whether the vaccine transports DNA or mRNA, the point is to distribute the genetic information and leave the rest to the body’s own mechanisms.”

Prof. Oess underlines that reactions to vaccines are a good sign: “They are evidence that the body is processing the vaccine, and recent findings suggest that they intensify the binding of the antibodies. However, they do not constitute a minor Covid infection – comparable to smallpox vaccinations in the past – but instead an activation of the immune system.”

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