By Grant Jacobs 16/10/2021


Worried about getting your vaccine? Let me tell you a secret. No-one likes getting a vaccine. People do it because they know they’re better off to. Let me tell you another secret, a weird one: the vaccine doesn’t really “do” anything. Confusing? Let me explain…

Vaccines are a face at the right place, at the right time. The vaccine isn’t doing anything, though. It’s not a drug doing some chemistry. It’s just standing there, letting your body take a snapshot of it.

If you want a little more than ‘it works’, but without the really deep stuff; this is for you.

What’s happening

Scientists and doctors often talk about vaccines as if they were drugs, “the vaccine gives you protection from the virus”. It’s a shorthand for a long, clumsy explanation of what happens.

All the work, the doing, is done by your natural immune system. The vaccine is just a mimic, something that looks similar enough to the virus your immune system can learn what the virus looks like from it.

A very simplified way to think of your immune system is to think of it in two parts, the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.

The innate immune system is built-in (innate) and ready to go without any help. It clobbers some stuff but is clumsy so some infections get past it. Some viruses are good sneaking past it. COVID-19 is like that.

Your adaptive immune system is a smart system. It builds a collection of antibodies to recognise invaders. It takes the offending thing—the spike protein on your cells—and makes thousands of different antibodies, testing if they stick to it. Those that stick to the virus are remembered as being something that can recognise that virus.

Once your immune system has a collection of antibodies that match parts of the virus it can react directly to that virus. Our antibodies are little narks who spot trouble and call up a whole collection of little thugs to overwhelm the ugly one, the virus.

Clever, huh?

A stripped down mimic

People get confused by descriptions of how mRNA vaccines work. The big thing is that mRNA vaccines are a stripped down version of what many vaccines do, mimicking the ‘face’ of the virus on the surface of some of your cells so that your adaptive immune system can learn what the virus looks like.

Many viruses build new viruses by first putting the proteins that sit on the outside (like the spike protein) into a something like a cell membrane, then stuffing the guts of the virus in behind them. As the virus stuff stuff grabs the back of the proteins in the membrane, the membrane bulges out, and out plops a new virus.

The vaccine only makes a bulged out surface with the spike proteins on it – the ‘face’ of the virus that your immune system learns what it looks like. It’s not a virus, and it’s not doing anything. It just looks like a virus doing its thing.

This is the same approach used in some older vaccines that take viruses and cut short what they do, stopping after they’ve made their surface proteins.

Ideally vaccines are as simple as possible. You can think of it as fewer things to go wrong. mRNA vaccines are some of the most stripped-down vaccines we’ve made. No extra virus bits to worry about.

Protecting you

Now you have a strong, fast immune response if your body sees the spike protein again. Your immune system will get rid of a virus with the spike protein because it’s seen that one before.

The virus might sneak past your innate immune system, but it has a hard time getting past an adaptive immune system that it knows its target. With that you’re very well protected from severe infections.

A few people, not many, will get a small infection their immune system fights off. You might feel sick, but it’s most often a wishing-I-didn’t-have-this kind of sick. Very few fully-vaccinated people end up in hospital, let alone in an ICU. You can see this in NZ’s statistics, too. Almost no-one who is fully immunised is in hospital: of the 124 people who have been in hospital in this outbreak, just 3 were fully immunised.

So, the best way to stay out of hospital is to get vaccinated. Yay.

But here’s a thing: the virus will eventually make its way to everyone. Maybe in the next few months. Maybe you won’t face it for a year or two after we’ve opened up the country to the rest of the world. You will eventually, you just don’t know when. That why we want everyone to get the vaccine.

You’re also less likely to get ‘long COVID’. Long COVID is the effects that carry on after you have been infected. For many they stick around for months. They range from persistent things that nag these people every day, to very serious issues. Long COVID is not limited to the elderly, it’s a big deal, and it’s worth avoiding.

Protecting others

Despite what some rumours say, the vaccine strongly reduces the spread of infection. This effect is stronger the more people who get vaccinated. That’s because if both the ‘giver’ and the ‘receiver’ are vaccinated, infection is doubly less likely to happen.

If you are vaccinated you’re less likely to become infected – and you can’t pass it on to someone else if you’re not infected. Then on top of that, if you’re infected you’re less likely to pass to pass it on compared to an infected unvaccinated person. It’s even less likely if the person you would pass it to is vaccinated as they have protection from you.

Not an instant fix

It takes 10-14 days for your immune system to do it’s thing and build up the tools to protect you.

Add that you need at least 3 weeks between vaccines, and it’ll take you 5 weeks to be protected – your first dose, wait 3 weeks, your second dose, then 2 weeks for full protection to kick in.

If you want the festival gigs in November, or just to hang out with family or friends over Christmas, you want to get your first vaccine as soon as you can. Today is a good chance – vaccine centres are open all over the country. Besides, there are goodies and prizes.

Christmas time is a time we all meet. It’d be best that we were protected before then.

It might feel like a first for you but, across all the COVID-19 vaccines, over 6 billion vaccine doses have been given. That’s lot of us who have gone before you!

(In the USA over 200 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine we use have been given, and over 400 million in Europe.)

Two tips for vaccination

Two non-scientific tips from someone who has been there.

If you’re a side-sleeper, choose to be injected on the side you don’t sleep on!

And – relax.

It goes much more nicely if you just let it be 😊

Footnotes

I’ve left out links for ‘the facts’ to try get this out sooner. This is about the key ideas.