Vaccines, Immunity and Viruses!
Posted on May 11, 2020
I have never
been much use at science and maths. I would sit there in the class and some
boring bloke would droll on about numbers and letters as I got lost in a
distant haze. I could do basic maths (arithmetic) quite well, but chemistry,
physics and biology were alien to me.
On the odd occasion I could just about follow it, then by the next lesson it would be gone. This meant I fell further back as others pushed on. My dad (a nuclear scientist) would try to explain how obvious it all was. His efforts were largely futile.
“So, that letter is a number, you see. In this instance, L is 8?”
“How can a letter be a number, though dad?”
“It is bloody obvious!”
“No, it isn’t. That is a letter and that is a number.”
And on it would go, until I was eventually put out of my misery with a catalogue of miserable exam results. To me, letters will always be for writing and numbers will always be for counting. Anything else seems silly.
My theory is that in the world of mathematicians and scientists, letters being numbers is normal and that is what makes them poor teachers. They cannot operate in laymen’s terms because they do not understand why students can’t see what they are seeing.
Speaking to a Scientist
So, imagine the scenes yesterday when I spoke to a chap at our cricket club who is a scientist (he studied vaccines for plagues and cancers). He called me to politely put me right with regards to my naïve view on viruses, mutations and vaccines.
As soon as he started talking, my bottom lip wobbled with fear, in the same way it did all those decades ago. Once again, now in my fifties, I was about to be exposed as an utter retard, with the attention span of a goldfish in the latter stages of dementia.
Then, a miracle happened. Rob started talking to me in layman’s terms. Incredibly, I understood what he was explaining to me. This has never happened before, so it was something of a revelation. Normally, I just pretend I understand and get off the phone as quickly as possible.
I will begin
with vaccines. All I knew about a vaccine is that it is supposed to stop
someone getting an illness. Did I know how it worked? Don’t be daft.
So here is how Rob explained it. Imagine a virus is a square. To recreate that square into a vaccine you must mimic it. So, what happens is the square (the virus) is taken and all the bad bits are removed in a laboratory. I do not know how; I think it is sometimes as simplistic as boiling it.
The mimic is injected into the human and the body’s immune registers it in its memory as something alien that should not be there. When the real virus attacks, the immune system recognises instantly and sticks the boot in, killing it before it does its nasty stuff.
So, what if the virus mutates? Does that mean that the vaccine will no longer work? This is where it became apparent that I have seen too many sci-fi thrillers. In movies, when mutation is mentioned, it generally means some bad shit is going down.
“Doctor…it’s, it’s, it’s…the virus…IT’S MUTATING!!!!”
What I did not realise is that viruses are mutating all the time; its what they do. The only time the vaccine (remember the mimic square) would become useless, is if the virus mutated so much, it became a circle. The coronavirus genome is about 30,000 bases long; a mutation is a change in one single base.
So (hopefully) it will take some time for the square to mutate into a circle and not be identifiable to our immunity’s memory. However, no one knows that for sure at this stage. It could, if we are unlucky, become a circle next week. Do not start writing your obituary, as this is highly unlikely.
There is one thing to remember. If we get Coronavirus our immunity may only recognise danger for a short time before it needs a reminder (SARS was 2 years). The theory is that with enough vaccine (if we get one quickly enough) and people who have had coronavirus possessing immunity, it will eventually have nowhere to go. With nothing left to attack, it simply dies.
Colds and Flu
There has been a lot of talk
about the common cold being a similar but weaker version of the coronavirus. People
in the media have said if there is no vaccine for the common cold, why would
there be one for coronavirus?
Well, that is because there is not a virus called the common cold. The common cold is a name given for 200 or more viruses that make you snotty and a bit down in the dumps. There is no vaccine for the common cold viruses because they would have to be researching hundreds of them at great cost. Why use up all your resources to cure a runny nose and a bit of sneezing when there are far more important things to worry about?
A nastier virus is of course influenza. There are four versions of this with their own strains. These travel around the world and there are vaccines which must be updated each year. Scientists are constantly checking other countries for flu outbreaks because they rotate with the seasons. For example, a bad winter for flu in Australia, allows European countries the ability to know what to vaccinate against and vice versa.
To summarize, the odds for killing off coronavirus are decent. If those infected do have a two-year immunity and a vaccine is found before the virus mutates from a square to a circle, we are in business. If the virus mutates too quickly for vaccine manufacturers to keep up with it and immunity for those infected is short, well…Houston, we have a problem.
However, from what I understand, the odds are heavily in favour of humans. So far, the coronavirus has not mutated drastically and is regarded as being a slow mover (10 times slower than influenza). On balance, therapy, immunity, vaccines and social awareness are likely to sort the virus out in the end.
Right that is me done with. Because it is 2020, so I am now a scientist. ‘Professor Bob Lethaby’ has an educated ring to it.