Spanish version here
«I do believe that we are scared and sceptical of whatever we don’t understand. It is very unfortunate that we live in a world that information is spread very quickly and it is often not checked for validity. This results to confusion.» Christina Kamma-Lorger is giving an interview to tilosnews.eu and explains, using scientific facts, all about COVID vaccines.
Christina Kamma-Lorger is from Tilos. She finished school in Rhodes and has studied abroad. Her first degree (Hons) is in Biology with Genetics from the University of Bedfordshire, UK. She then got a full studentship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), for her MSc in Molecular Modelling at Cardiff University. She obtained her PhD in Cell Biology and Biophysics with a full studentship form the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, Cardiff University, UK. She then stayed at the same group for a 5-year post doc funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), UK. She was appointed as a beamline scientist at ALBA Synchrotron Light Source in Spain in 2012. She is currently a Lead Scientist at the Biological Small Angle Scattering beamline (BioSAXS) at the Australian Synchrotron. Her research interests are mainly on improving medical procedures, bioengineering and the development of new diagnostics and treatments. She has numerous publications in international peer reviewed journals, presentations at scientific congresses, is regularly organising workshops and she is a reviewer for scientific journals. She’s married and has three children.
The interview on tilosnews.eu
Australia had been in a lengthy lockdown for a few months over winter. However, you are all good right now. How the situation was then and how is it now in Melbourne?
We were in a 5-day snap lockdown up until Wednesday this week. Australia has a completely different approach towards the pandemic. We had the advantage to be in the summer when the first outbreak happened and due to the long distance of the country from the rest of the world, the situation has been quite descent since the very beginning. The government had the privilege to see first what was happening in Europe and they had time to prepare before it had reached us. Therefore, in the vast majority of the country they managed to keep the pandemic under control, and except Melbourne, there was no need for major lockdowns. The situation is slightly different in metropolitan Melbourne, where we have done one of the lengthiest lockdowns. We started with restrictions in July, moved into a strict lockdown in August and it was not lifted until October. We managed to eliminate the virus and community transmissions. We spent weeks without having any cases and we were living a pretty normal and safe life. However, the authorities decided to permit the Australian Open to go ahead and that’s when we imported the virus again. We went into a snap 5-day lockdown that was raised yesterday. We are now allowed out and about again, with a few restrictions and we don’t have any community cases again. I hope we will carry on this way.
How would you characterise the reaction of biomedicine with this crisis?
The reaction of the scientific community towards the pandemic has been immediate. The vast majority of biomedical researchers globally focused on the research against coronavirus.
There are a lot of doubts and lack of knowledge regarding the vaccine. The main question is how was it possible to develop a vaccine within 12 months when in other cases it could take years?
As I mentioned before, the scientific community acted immediately towards the pandemic as it was a rather critical situation. A lot of resources and funding were dedicated towards this and literally pretty much every research group in the biomedical field focused on COVID research. In any case, when resources and funding increase, projects advance rapidly and that’s precisely what happened in this case. It is not the same to have 1 researcher investigating on a given matter or 100 researchers. Especially in this case we are talking about the global scientific community. The view that there were shortcuts taken in order to prepare the vaccine is hence completely unsubstantial. We all have worked in parallel in order to gain time. Please allow me to state here that a lot of the methods that have been used are not that new. For example, I was working with liposomes when I was at the synchrotron in Spain, back in 2012. The various types of RNA have been extensively investigated for their applications in the treatment of various diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
What is the mRNA technology and how does the vaccine work in human?
The main parts of any human cell are the nucleus and the cytoplasm. The cytoplasm is bordered from the cell’s external environment by a phospholipid bilayer. A lipid bilayer is also separating the nucleus from the cell’s cytoplasm. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is produced in the nucleus, secreted subsequently to the cytoplasm where it reaches the ribosomes and passes the order to build a given protein. Ribosomes are like a protein making factory within the cell, that they receive the order of protein production from the nucleus via the mRNA. As soon as the mRNA passes on the message, it disappears from the cell. In the case of mRNA vaccines, we add the mRNA in the cytoplasm. We basically skip the first step that is the transmission of the message for protein production from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. We trick our cells in order to produce the “spike” protein of coronavirus. Once the protein is produced in our body from our cells, our immune system recognises that it is a foreign protein (antigen) and hence we have an immune response raised against it. We produce antibodies that recognise this protein and hence if the virus enters our body it is being eliminated by our immune system before it gets a chance to cause damage to our bodies.
Do you have anything to say against the main conspiracy theories: The mRNA vaccine is a dangerous virus that can cause genetic mutations, The mRNA vaccines are gene therapy, The mRNA vaccine can affect sperm and egg and hence can cause hereditary conditions in forthcoming offspring, The mRNA vaccine will change our DNA?
All these concerns stem from the same issue; fear of the vaccine altering our genetic material. As I mentioned above the mRNA is produced in the cell’s nucleus and it exits directly towards the cytoplasm in order to transmit the information for protein production. Once it is out of the nucleus and completes its mission, it disappears. The same applies to the mRNA that we inject with the vaccine. Our genetic material, our DNA, is exclusively located in the nucleus. Hence, since mRNA never returns back to the nucleus, there is no way it could alter our DNA. It is a one way reaction. In any way, mRNA is not interacting with DNA so even if mRNA returns back to the nucleus (that it doesn’t anyway), it wouldn’t have been able to alter our DNA and therefore there is no such risk. These are fundamental principles of biology. It is the kind of stuff that we learn at school. It is truly upsetting to see so many scientifically unsubstantial conspiracy theories to become viral and affect public opinion in such a serious occasion as the one we are living now.
There have been noted various side effects in the U.S. and in Europe. What is, in your opinion, the main side effect that we should keep in mind? Should we expect to see more side effects?
The preservatives that are being used for the liposomes that carry the mRNA could cause an allergic reaction. It is a very small propability that this can happen, but nevertheless it is something that can happen. It is therefore strongly recommended, people with anaphylactic shock history to consult with their GP first and make sure that they are not allergic to these ingredients. Less serious reactions include muscular pain on the site where the shot was done and light flu symptoms. These reactions are expected and are known to be quite light.
Are the available vaccines able to combat the new mutants of the virus?
Yes, they are. Even if the virus keeps mutating, it remains the same coronavirus that is recognised by the antibodies of our immune system. It is the same situation as when we get older. We change physically in appearance, but we are still being recognised by people around us.
How long does immunity last after having the vaccine done? Would we have to have various booster shots over time?
We live in unprecedented times and the scientific community is understanding step by step this virus. Initially it was stated that antibodies against the coronavirus last for 3 months, then 6 months and now 9 months. The reason that this statement changes over time is because we count from the beginning of the pandemic and we get to know as we move on. This month it will be 1 year since the pandemic hit Europe and only now we have data for 12 months. There is a Nature publication that states that we tend to have the maximum number of antibodies 9 months after infection. After we reach the peak, our immunity starts falling, but we don’t know at which rate and how long it might take for the antibodies to disappear-if they do disappear. It might take even years. We will have to see this.
Another question is whether someone who has done the vaccine, can contaminate unvaccinated people around them with the virus?
We still don’t know about that. The certain thing is that if someone is vaccinated against coronavirus even if they fall ill, they won’t be that heavily ill that would threaten their life. At the end this is the objective; lives not to be lost and the health systems not to be completely saturated. The latter one has even further consequences, because if health systems fall apart, then other serious diseases cannot be treated and there are even more people losing their lives. If someone is vaccinated, even if they carry the virus, the viral charge is not going to be as high and potentially people around them will not fall critically ill even if they get infected. If someone is not vaccinated and their bodies are not trained to fight the virus, once they get infected the virus reproduces quicker and hence they have a heavier viral charge making it pretty dangerous for people around them. All this of course will have to be measured and cross-validated before we can be 100% certain.
What is your advice for the indecisive ones who state that they’ll wait for others to be vaccinated first or the anti vaxxers?
I do believe that we are scared and sceptical of whatever we don’t understand. It is very unfortunate that we live in a world that information is spread very quickly and it is often not checked for validity. This results to confusion. A great example are the conspiracy theories that we discussed above. In order for a scientific paper to be published, it goes through a rigorous peer review process by experts in the field. I am a reviewer and I have to admit I have rejected a few papers because they were not precise or the data was not well analysed. If now we take this outside the scientific framework, you can imagine what happens. Everyone can create their own blog and write anything they wish, or even appear on a television panel and say pretty much anything without any control, sometimes out of lack of knowledge or even intentionally. This can be quite catastrophic in times like ours that we are going through a global pandemic. I would therefore strongly advice the ones who have doubts to talk to their GPs. The right answers are not over the internet or on television panels. Bear in mind that if there is any emergency at all, we all run to the hospital, it is the same medical field we are talking about now. Only your GP can advise you on what to do based on your medical history, nobody else.