Natural Sciences

Anti-Vaxxers Note: Here’s How Science Actually Works

Written by Mamie M. Arndt
Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Are you one of the millions of people who worry that the “Covid-45” vaccines have been rushed in development?  Do you reflect on how long it took to develop the polio or smallpox vaccines, and worry that safety steps were skipped with these new vaccines? 

How about considering real science, instead of the scary news and fake news stories that excite attention?  Many LA Progressive readers got the Salk polio vaccine, starting in 1955.  Dr. Salk’s vaccine used inactivated polio virus to stimulate antibodies and immunity to active polio virus. 

Dr. Jonas Salk announced the development of his vaccine in 1952.  Because of the extensive testing required to prove efficacy and safety, Dr. Salk’s vaccine wasn’t approved for public use until early 1955.  But Dr. Salk knew what his vaccine could do, and he vaccinated his own children in 1953. 

1953 was also the year in which British scientists finally figured out the structure for DNA.  All the genius male scientists had been modeling DNA structures inside out, until Dr. Rosalind Franklin convinced one male team that her x-ray imaging proved that their structural analysis was wrong. 

It wouldn’t be until 1958 that scientists actually confirmed how DNA worked to replicate genetic information.  And, in 1962, when the Nobel Prize Committee gave a Nobel Prize for the “discovery” of DNA structure, to three men, Dr. Franklin wasn’t included. 

While the Nobel Committee and the world were ignoring the central importance of a woman scientist’s input on DNA structure and the misunderstanding of the male “discoverers,” NASA was secretly using Black Women mathematicians to double-check the results of computer calculations for the emerging space program.  It would be decades before the contributions of Dr. Franklin and the “Hidden Figurers” would be recognized.  But without recognition, they were laying the foundations for new scientific worlds. 

The vaccines available today are almost certainly not perfect.  But when calling them “rushed,” it is essential to understand the context of rapidly evolving science.

As Pentagon and NASA scientists pushed the development of ever more sophisticated computers, other scientists saw those computers as a way to understand what DNA did, and the mechanisms of how how cells use DNA code to perform their functions. 

Some readers may remember the early “personal” computers, based around the 8080 processor.  Fewer know that the 8080 processor was preceded by the 4004 and 8008 processors, which were developed for business calculators and entertainment purposes, including pinball machines.  One early function of the 4004 chips was to control the machines that made computer and memory chips, thus increasing the speed and quality control of the manufacture. 

And again, according to people who were there, it was a woman who first suggested the organizing principle that made the new system of microprocessors actually functional. 

Once microprocessor systems started to speed up scientific calculations, including calculations about how to make better, faster, more reliable computers, all sorts of researchers applied them in unforeseen ways.  Today we consider ultrasound to be a standard, even necessary part of all sorts of medical diagnosis and imaging.  But it was the development of microprocessing technologies that allowed the massive, low-resolution ultrasound machines of the late 50s and 60s to evolve to today’s full-color, high-resolution imagers that sonographers can carry in their hands. 

Other scientists were learning how cell chemistry worked and how parts of cells communicate with each other internally.  Engineers learned how to make ever smaller, finer, more precise tools, that scientists could use to move DNA from cell to cell.  By the 1990s, scientists were talking about using computers to map the entire sequence of human DNA, and some dreamed, vocally, about being able to actually perform surgery on DNA to fix problems. 

By this century, DNA gene mapping was no longer a dream, but a reality.  And gene surgery became real, so that therapies designed around gene therapy could be explored.  On the sidelines, out of the mainstream, a few scientists were looking at how DNA communicates with other parts of cells.  DNA uses “messenger RNA” also called mRNA to move instructions from DNA to cell operations, and between cell operations. 

Decades before anyone had heard of Covid-45, researchers were studying mRNA for potential treatments for cancer and HIV.  They worked out the mechanisms that showed what mRNA could and couldn’t do.  It can be used to trigger the creation of auto-immune responses to virus infections.  So some types of cancer might be targeted, as well as HIV.  Maybe also herpes.

tom hall

But mRNA has problems: It has a hard time penetrating cell walls and it can’t get into a cell’s nucleus.  So it can’t directly affect DNA, which resides in the nucleus.  And mRNA is very fragile.  The reason the BioNTech vaccine needs to be kept so cold is to slow the natural rate at which mRNA disintegrates.  A lot of research has gone into stabilizing mRMA—not because of Covid-45, but rather to be able to study the molecules, long before Covid-45 came along. 

We have moved from vaccines without any consideration of DNA, like the polio and smallpox vaccines, to vaccines that don’t need to include any parts of the virus they are designed to block.  And, as computers grow smaller and more powerful every year, even as they grow much cheaper, the biological knowledge that computers allow us to develop expands every year.  Modern mRNA vaccines are far better understood than Jonas Salk understood his vaccine in 1952.  And mRNA viruses are much cheaper to produce that the older style vaccines that required growing replicas of viruses and then denaturing them. 

Understanding the vaccines doesn’t mean that they are without risks.  The extensive studies of mRNA as potential treatment for cancers, HIV and other diseases has taught scientists a lot about what can go wrong.  And they have done extensive research in ways to minimize risk, while increasing efficacy.  Just as the vaccines have been adapted to the new Coronavirus, the ways to protect cancer and HIV patients have been adapted to the new virus.  This doesn’t mean that they are perfect. But it also doesn’t mean that we are experimenting with people’s lives, without any basis for assumptions. 

If we look back at the fourth paragraph of this article and the mention of Dr. Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray photography of DNA structures proved that the male researchers had gotten the structure wrong, we might recall that her work was a direct descendant of the work with x-rays by Marie Curie, 50 years earlier. 

Drs. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci

When we think about the doomsday predictions of anti-vaxxers, we should think back to the 1723 smallpox pandemic in the Boston colony.  Minister Cotton Mather stopped that epidemic by inoculating people with chickenpox as a vaccine.  While he did that, he was loudly condemned by scientists who said his methods were too speculative and dangerous, and criticized as well by Puritan ministers who were sure that the smallpox was a punishment from god, and that any effort to prevent it could lead to even worse punishments by god. 

Some fears about vaccines reflect religious ideas and ignorance.  One thing that is not broadly discussed in the corporate “liberal” media is that the “Pfizer-BioNtech” vaccine was not developed by Pfizer.  Pfizer invested in BioNTech after the vaccine was developed and in testing, agreeing to pour money in for more testing and marketing. 

BioNTech is a research company founded by an Islamic husband and wife,  Drs. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci.  They founded the company to do mRNA research into cancer treatments, more than a decade before Covid-45 first appeared.  Their search for cancer cures reminds us that Islamic doctors were writing medical textbooks back in the 9th and 10th centuries, while Christian Europeans were treating illnesses with exorcisms.  Beginning in the 13th century, translations of Islamic medical texts became the gold standard for medical education across Europe, up into the early 19th century. 

The vaccines available today are almost certainly not perfect.  But when calling them “rushed,” it is essential to understand the context of rapidly evolving science, from the “Hidden Figurers” who got our astronauts home from the moon to the smart ‘phones that evolved from the first touchtone princess ‘phones. 

Tom Hall

These are not novelties picked from politicians’ fear-mongering fever dreams but the latest developments of decades of accumulated understanding. 

Tom Hall

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About the author

Mamie M. Arndt