Pandemic Perspectives: How the Vaccine Works

A lot has changed about how we view the COVID-19 virus since last March, and with so much misinformation spreading everywhere, it can be difficult to stay up to date on the pandemic. To try to get a better understanding of the science behind COVID-19, I sat down with biodefense consultant Jenny Withoff.

Interviewee Biography: Jenny Withoff is a biodefense biosecurity consultant, where she works on infectious disease control. She previously worked as a veterinarian, after receiving her doctorate in Veterinary Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. Due to her background working with animals, it is no surprise that she also is an animal lover: she owns two German Shepherds, three cats, and several chickens. Additionally, she works as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, where she teaches a course called ‘One Health: Animals, People and the Environment—Interactions and Implications for Global Health Security.’ Aside from her career as a scientist/veterinarian/professor, she enjoys traveling and solving puzzles. She also happens to be my aunt!

• Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do?

JW: So I work in biodefense, which means we are trying to prepare countries and governments and private entities for anything that can happen related to the field of biology. So it could be a natural disease outbreak or something intentional. Basically, we are just trying to prepare
everyone for potential infectious disease outbreaks.

• There’s been a lot of talk about the new variants that are spreading – what risk do they pose? How do they differ from the original variant?

JW: Some variants differ significantly from the original virus, and others differ by just one amino acid chain. If you look at the structure of the virus, it’s a really, really tiny component—just one amino acid change makes a variant. Bacteria viruses are good at changing—their goal is to keep themselves alive, so they change a lot. Some viruses change more than others, and Coronavirus isn’t one that changes the most. Influenza would actually be the one that changes more than any of the rest of them, but as far as being a risk going forward, so far it looks like the vaccines are very capable of handling the variants we’re seeing come out.

• Was the United States well prepared to combat this virus before it spread?

JW: I think we could have been way better prepared—the whole world could’ve been better prepared. So I don’t think it was just a U.S. problem. We’ve been talking about coronaviruses in particular for probably a good 20 years, and the problems it causes. Because we have seen them emerge in the past, with things like SARS-1, we knew that coronaviruses were going to be a problem. The issue is that it’s hard to convince people to spend money on things that really haven’t affected the global economy in the past. I think that overall we could’ve done a better job, but I think that everyone across the board could have, as well.

• Can you summarize how the vaccine works?

JW: The COVID-19 vaccine is different from normal ones we are used to. To make it a little bit easier to digest, we’ve just taken a little snippet of the way the virus is structured, and basically, we found that this is very effective in creating an immune response. With the older vaccines, it was a little bit of a longer process to develop, because we actually had to grow the viruses, and produce them in other ways, which is a very long and labor-intensive process. The fact that we can take just a little snippet of the genetic material, the mRNA in particular, is pretty amazing. The immune response that we’ve created with this particular process mirrors all of the older processes, it has just taken a shorter amount of time to do.

• I know that you recently just got the vaccine – what was that experience like for you? Did you feel any side effects?

JW: I am fully vaccinated—I had my second dose of the vaccine in January, which means my immune system is ready to face the virus! I would have to say that, compared to vaccines I’ve had in the past, the response really wasn’t any different. I had maybe a bit more arm soreness than with other vaccines, but beyond that, I really had no reaction. Some people have felt a little flu-like: they felt a little more tired and feverish after their second dose of the vaccine in particular, but it’s only lasted a day or two, and everyone has been feeling okay after taking normal anti-inflammatories to alleviate symptoms.

• What do you think is the most likely timeline for everything going back to “normal,” at least somewhat?

JW: I feel that by the end of the summer we should be in a really good position to have events and just a general sense of normalcy. We’ll likely be able to go to school, be around others—we should have enough people vaccinated and have herd immunity by that point, so we can feel a
little more comfortable with going in public. I don’t know if mask mandates will go away before or after that, but we should at least have enough people that are immune to the virus that it will be okay for us to go out again, and feel comfortable that we’re protected in doing so.

• How much do you think the vaccine will help stop the spread of the virus? Around how many people will need to get vaccinated for the United States to reach herd immunity?

JW: I think we’re probably looking at 80-85% of the population that needs to be vaccinated or have a previous infection. This statistic is high compared to other viruses because of how contagious this virus is. That’s a lot of people, but we do have a lot of people who have been previously infected. The vaccine rollout is going a little bit slower than we would have hoped—there are supply chain issues and the weather has not been helpful at all.

• Hypothetically, if enough people don’t get the vaccine, what would the effects of that be?

JW: It will definitely take longer for things to get better if that happens. I do think we’re definitely going to be dealing with coronaviruses for a while. I think we might be headed down the path where we need to vaccinate on a yearly basis, much like influenza—everyone gets the flu shot every year because it mutates so often. I think that, for at least the next couple of years, we’ll need to keep up booster shots for the coronavirus.

— Blake Ciresa