Salmon Arm’s Dr. Warren Bell looks at the mRNA vaccines being used in the fight against COVID-19 and its variants. (File photo)

Salmon Arm’s Dr. Warren Bell looks at the mRNA vaccines being used in the fight against COVID-19 and its variants. (File photo)

Column: Breaking down Big Pharma’s vaccine response to COVID-19

Salmon Arm doctor addresses history, efficacy of mRNA vaccines

By Warren Bell, MD


I’ve spent the past 18 months reading on all sides of the COVID-19 issue.

Over the years, I have criticized many aspects of health care, especially the drug industry, as well as corporate behaviour in general, and will continue to do so.

Deploying the mRNA vaccines has some familiar aspects and some unusual ones.

The approach of using a fragment of genetic material (RNA or DNA) was first explored in the early 1990s. It was initially employed in 2004 to inoculate horses – estimated to share nearly 90 per cent of their genetic material with us – against West Nile Virus. It was a success, causing few adverse effects; WNV (a dangerous condition in horses) was essentially eliminated.

The reason this approach seems “novel” has to do with how Big Pharma works.

The industry sat on the technology and waited until the third Coronavirus epidemic came through (SARS and MERS were the first two).

Looking out for its shareholders, the drug industry was waiting until it could get others to pay for the retooling of their facilities and the studies needed to get these new products to market, knowing a pandemic would probably do the trick – which it did. Industry also had the new and far more precise CRISPR technology available (first found in bacteria in yoghurt, by the way). This allows for very targeted gene cutting and splicing.

So with public money in hand, Big Pharma went to work. There were initially 141 vaccine trials put in place, many using public money to get off the ground. The mRNA vaccines do what every virus also does – use the host’s genetic machinery to replicate.

What is new is that the fragment of mRNA in the vaccine stimulates the production of just the “spike” protein on the outside of the viral unit. This doesn’t appear to cause much trouble on its own, but it does stimulate the body’s immune system to generate antibodies, which attack any intact virus that lands in us and destroys it.

All is not rosy: there are problems with the PCR test used to identify cases because it doesn’t always indicate infectivity (unless one knows how many cycles of the test were used). And no one knows how long vaccine-induced immunity will last (wild infection appears to confer at least eight months of high antibody levels). And the Delta variant is almost like a new Coronavirus – far more transmissible.

But avoiding the mRNA vaccines because of purported risks from a so-called “novel” line of products suggests a lack of awareness of the self-serving way Big Pharma works.

With most drug introductions, industry can control messaging with great care, and problems can take years to be identified due to corporate obfuscation. The intense public scrutiny (and public money) surrounding the vaccines means both politicians and drug company CEOs know that if they screw up, their careers are toast. That public scrutiny alone is what makes the COVID-19 story quite different.

The mRNA vaccines, while not perfect, do appear to reduce the burden of serious COVID-19 complications.

Read more: Masks now mandatory for all B.C. students

Read more: Health Canada authorizes Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines for kids 12 to 17 years old

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