Marya Ghazipura, epidemiologist and biostatician based in New York City talks to Yahoo Life about all things vaccines: What is a vaccine? How is it made? How long does it take?
The purpose of a vaccine is to train our bodies to create an immune response to pathogens so that we can successfully neutralize a virus when we come in contact with it in the future. “A pathogen is a protein that’s foreign to your body, like a virus or bacteria,” Ghazipura explains. “The idea is that we want our bodies to create antibodies against it.”
In order to create these antibodies to act as a defense mechanism, we first need to be exposed to the virus via an antigen in a vaccine. “Antigens are proteins that are on the surface of the virus, they look like the pathogen but they’re inactive or they’re weakened,” she says.
Once we are exposed to these antigens via a vaccine, our bodies learn to recognize them as a hostile invader, creating antibodies to fight them off. “That way in the future when you’re challenged with the virus, your body already recognizes it as a foreign object, and it has adequate storage of antibodies to neutralize the virus,” Ghazipura tells Yahoo Life.
“Vaccines don’t just work at an individual level, sure they protect us, but they also work at this population level,” she explains. “This results in something called herd immunity.” Ghazipura explains that if enough people are immune through vaccinations, the virus stops finding enough hosts and eventually starts dying out. That’s why it’s important that as many people as possible become vaccinated.
Ghazipura says that the process to develop a virus is made up of 5 key phases that can take up to 5 years, but science is being expedited at unprecedented rates to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Once all phases are complete including three levels of clinical trials involving thousands of volunteers, a vaccine is approved and moves on to mass production.
Ghazipura says that although push back against science is at an all-time high, in order for a vaccine to work properly, we need everyone on board. “We want as few people as possible to be contagious, and in order to make that happen we need higher vaccine uptake,” Ghazipura says.