Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Guest Post: Patient-centered discussion of COVID-19 infection and mRNA vaccines

- Matthew R. Porter, MD, FAAFP, CAQHPM

Few patients understand what the SARS-CoV-2 virus does to the human body or how a COVID-19 messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine works. The following patient-centered explanation utilizes readily understood metaphors and two clear, simple illustrations that you may use in your vaccine counseling visits. When patients understand how the virus infects cells and how an mRNA vaccine works, most anti-vaccine myths are neutralized and vaccine hesitancy decreases.

Here is a sample conversation I've used to help persuade vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-resistant patients of the safety of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines:

"Ms. Smith, can I explain to you how the COVID virus infects our body?

Here is a picture of the virus. You can see the spike proteins on the outside. These are like suction cups. They help the virus attach to the cells in our lungs. Inside the virus is RNA, which functions like a DVD because it stores all the information needed to make another virus. For this reason I've made it look like a DVD.

After the virus attaches to a cell, it injects all of the RNA into the cell. The DVD goes to a photocopier in the cell and prints out all the information it has. This stack of pages I've drawn here represents all that information, like a stack of messages. Messenger RNA, mRNA for short, is just copies of all the messages.

The mRNA then goes to the part of the cell that makes proteins. But instead of making a single COVID virus, the mRNA tricks the cell into making thousands of copies of the virus. This overwhelms the cell, causing it to explode, releasing all of those viruses to attack other lung cells. This process occurs until our immune system gets the outbreak under control. By then, in some patients with risk factors, too much damage has been done to the lungs, causing respiratory failure.

Now let me compare this to how an mRNA vaccine works. Imagine this book is the entire COVID RNA. To make the vaccine, a single page of this book with instructions for how to make a spike protein was photocopied. That information is all that is in the vaccine. When it gets inside a cell, the body sees it and says "Hey, these are instructions for making a protein!" Then the spike protein is made. At this point, the cell looks at the spike protein and says "Hey, you don't have ID!" Antibodies are made that fit the shape of the spike protein. The protein is quickly destroyed, as was the single page of mRNA instructions. So all you have left at this point are the antibodies against the spike protein, ready to attack the actual COVID virus.

You can see from this explanation that all of the mRNA in the COVID vaccine is actually present in a COVID infection. But instead of making cells explode, it just prepares the body to fight off the infection. So it makes no sense to downplay the risk of a COVID infection and exaggerate the risk of the mRNA vaccine when the complete set of COVID RNA and mRNA enter your body when you get infected. Every other time in your life you had a viral infection, your body had no problem getting rid of virus proteins and virus mRNA. It is no different with the mRNA of the COVID vaccines."


Dr. Porter is a staff physician at Waco Family Medicine in Waco, Texas.