Understanding Viral Vector COVID-19 Vaccines

George J. Ziogas


The COVID-19 viral vector vaccines are the result of 40 years of scientific study. The first successful study of viral vector vaccines was published in the journal Nature. Scientists used a viral vector vaccine to create immunity against Hepatitis B in monkey test subjects. Since then, multiple viral vector platforms have been developed and patented by vaccine manufacturers.

What is a Viral Vector?

In science, a vector is a method used to transport information. To create a viral vector vaccine, scientists use a different virus from the target pathogen. A pathogen is any organism that can cause a contagious disease and may be a bacteria, virus, or other infectious agents.

The COVID-19 vaccines don't contain the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Instead, they use a different virus to transport information about COVID-19 so the body’s immune system will protect against it.

There are multiple viral vector Covid vaccines in study and production around the world. Currently, five viral vectors are in use to create these vaccines. These viral vectors come from adenoviruses which have been engineered not to cause disease. According to research from the Michigan Health Lab, adenoviruses belong to the family of viruses that cause mild diseases like the common cold.

Johnson and Johnson make the only viral vector vaccine being used in the United States. Their COVID-19 vaccine uses a proprietary viral vector platform known as AdVac. This platform has already been used for the company’s Zika vaccine, which is in use in Europe.

Vaccines and the Immune Response

When you develop a disease from a contagious pathogen, your immune system builds immunity against it for the next time you are exposed. Briefly, the steps of immunity from contracting a disease include:

· You are exposed to a pathogen.

· The pathogen overwhelms your body’s cells, and you get sick when you develop the disease.

· Once you recover from the disease, your immune system remembers the pathogen and creates antibodies against it.

· The next time you are exposed to the pathogen, the antibodies quickly warn your immune system to begin fighting the pathogen, so you don’t get sick again.

Vaccines bypass the need to contract an illness to build antibodies and immunity. According to research published by the National Academy of Sciences, many contagious diseases cause severe illness or death. Vaccines prevent infection and protect people’s health and lives.

Viral Vector COVID-19 Vaccines

Studies approved by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) explain how scientists created the COVID-19 viral vector vaccines. Because a vector for the vaccines had already been identified, researchers first studied the coronavirus itself.

The coronavirus has a unique protein on its surface known as a spike protein. Researchers separated the gene the coronavirus uses to make this protein and added it to an existing viral vector. The viral vector grows this protein on its surface, mimicking the specific marker of the coronavirus.

Once the vaccine is injected into the human body, the immune system recognizes the protein as a pathogen and begins to build immunity against it. The immune system doesn’t need exposure to the entire coronavirus, only to its protein.

Advantages of Viral Vector COVID-19 Vaccines

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the virus spread, many people became ill, and the death toll began to rise. Scientists needed to develop a vaccine quickly. They also wanted to create a COVID-19 vaccine that was safe and effective.

Because the viral vector platform was already in use, researchers at Johnson and Johnson used this technology to create a COVID-19 vaccine. Using an existing viral vector shortened the time needed to make the vaccine compared to previous types of vaccines made from viruses themselves. The vaccine then underwent clinical trials with more than 43,000 participants.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed the clinical trial results and determined the vaccine was safe and effective. Researchers continue to study the effects of the vaccine as more people get vaccinated.

Compared to other COVID-19 vaccines being used in the United States, the viral vector COVID-19 vaccine only requires one dose. The vaccine is also more stable at lower temperatures than other COVID-19 vaccines, meaning that before use, the vaccine doesn’t expire as quickly. Because of these advantages, the viral vector COVID-19 is often used in sparsely populated areas or for people who would have difficulty returning for a second dose.

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