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The Jordanian scientist, Dr. Lubna Tahtamouni, provided important information and scientific answers to pending questions regarding the coronavirus vaccines, which were recently produced by international companies in several countries.

Throughout history there have been many pandemics such as the Spanish flu (1918-1920) which affected more than 500 million people and killed around 50 million. However, the Spanish flu pandemic taught the world the benefits of quarantine and social distancing. 

In order for scientists to come up with a vaccine against the coronavirus they needed to study the structure of the virus, what makes it unique, and the mode of infection and transmission. The coronaviruses are of zoonotic origin, and they infect mammals and some types of birds. In fact, coronaviruses have been known to researchers for many years, and they caused human illnesses before, but never on such a large scale. However, there are some interesting features about this coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) which makes it unique. One of these features is the spiky sugar proteins (S proteins) on the surface of the virus which help the coronavirus to attack host cells. These S proteins are the target of the coronavirus vaccine.

It is true that vaccine development usually takes years, though and due to the urgency of developing a coronavirus vaccine, huge sums of money have been poured in and scientists worked relentlessly 24/7 (Operation Wrap Speed) since the first days of discovering the disease. This explains the speed of experiments and research compared to other diseases that did not receive the same attention. Eleven coronavirus vaccines successfully passed the three phases of clinical trials, and two of which (the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines) were approved by the FDA and CDC.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine- whose clinical trails have shown a 95% efficacy- relies on the virus’s genetic instructions to build the S glycoprotein. The vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA), the genetic material cells read (translate) to make proteins. Since the mRNA molecule is brittle and can be easily degraded by cells, Pfizer-BioNTech encapsulated the mRNA in oily bubbles made of nano-lipid molecules to protect it from degradation.

Many questions come to mind regarding this new technique, the most obvious of which is whether the vaccine mRNA can change our cells’ genetic makeup. The answer is: this is IMPOSSIBLE! The mRNA molecule does not enter the cell nucleus (where the genes are located) but is translated to proteins in the surrounding cytoplasm and is destroyed after the viral S proteins are built without leaving any permanent effects. These S proteins can then be identified by the immune system, and even after the cell dies, its debris contains the S proteins and their fragments, which can then be picked up by two types of immune cells: the antigen-presenting cells and the T-helper cells which mobilize and activate other immune cells such as the B cells which will begin to multiply and release antibodies that target the virus S proteins.

The released antibodies in turn can stick to the coronavirus spikes, mark the virus for destruction, and prevent infection by preventing the spikes from attaching to other cells. The antigen-presenting cells also activate another type of immune cells called the killer T cells to search for any coronavirus-infected cells and destroy them. Thus, the body is protected from the virus infection for months following vaccination. Additionally, and due to the presence of memory B and T cells that retain information about the coronavirus for years or even decades, the protection provided by the vaccines could last that long. However, because the vaccine and the technique are very new, researchers do not know how long it may continue to provide immunity. 

As for the second vaccine, known as mRNA-1273 and manufactured by Moderna, it works in the same way as the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna vaccine clinical trials concluded that this vaccine is immunogenic, i.e., it provokes an immune response and the production of antibodies against the coronavirus. 

Another common question is how scientists were able to produce a coronavirus vaccine in such a short period when science was unable to find a vaccine for HIV or cancer. Each of these diseases has unique challenges and cannot be compared to each other. Unlike HIV and COVID-19, cancer is not an infectious disease although many viruses - such as human papillomavirus (HPV) - can dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer. In fact, there are several approved vaccines for cancers caused by viruses, and there are other promising vaccines in clinical trials.

On the other hand, one of the reasons why scientists are struggling to develop a vaccine for HIV is that the virus mutates rapidly inside the patient's body and when it is transmitted from one person to another. Successful vaccines for other viruses, such as influenza, depend on inactivated or weakened versions of the virus to produce the vaccine; however, a weakened HIV virus has not been effective in stimulating immune responses, and of course the use of live HIV is very dangerous to be used in the production of a vaccine.

Finally, scientists turned their attention towards the mRNA-based vaccines because once researchers deciphered the sequence of the protein they want to target (such as the S proteins), these vaccines have become easy to manufacture as compared to traditional vaccines which require making a weakened version of the virus which can take a long time to develop, and time has not been on our side in our fight against COVID-19.


link: عالمة أردنية تجيب عن أسئلة عالقة بشأن لقاحات كورونا  - صحيفة الرأي


*A New Highlight over a Jordanian scientific research from the for Berkeley Global Science Institute (BGSI), University of California-Berkeley.

As a result of BGSI's participation in the 2017 World Science Forum in Jordan, our global science center at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), led by Dr. Bassem A. Al-Maythalony, established collaborations with a team of Jordanian researchers, led by Dr. Abdussalam K. Qaroush, Dr. Ala'a F. Eftaiha, and Dr. Khaleel I. Assaf. Their collaboration resulted in a research article on carbon capture using a sugar-based absorbent. The team went to great lengths to detail the characterization of not only the material but also the mechanism behind capturing CO2.

Aside from the fascinating science, this report represents a concrete outcome of the power of research engagement through the global science network. We, at BGSI, are proud of this result.

Publication Details:

A Green Sorbent for CO2 Capture: a-Cyclodextrin-based Carbonate in DMSO Solution

A. F. Eftaiha, A. K. Qaroush, F. Alsoubani, T. M. Pehl, C. Troll, B. Rieger, B. A. Al-Maythalony, and K. I. Assaf, RSC Advances, 2018, 8, 37757-37764. (DOI: 10.1039/C8RA08040B)

Link for the highlight