In the last year, more than 20,000 New Jerseyans have died from COVID-19 — more than those who perished from both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. Currently, more than eight in 100 New Jerseyans have tested positive — with countless more likely to have contracted the illness without getting tested. With the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at the end of 2020, a return to normalcy is on the horizon, but only if we achieve herd immunity against the virus.
As high school and college STEM students, our futures are dependent upon a return to the normal. Thanks to technology, we can connect and learn from teachers and each other, but the pandemic has limited our access to important educational opportunities, including vital hands-on experiential learning and lab experiments. At the year mark of the pandemic — which happens to coincide with New Jersey STEM Month — we must trust the science behind the vaccine.
Unfortunately, public opinion toward the vaccine is not yet on our side. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, less than half of Americans are willing to receive the vaccine when it becomes available to them, with another third of the population wanting to “wait and see” its effects on others before committing to get vaccinated. Despite the recent research and clinical data backing the available COVID-19 vaccines, many are still distrustful of this “new science” — voicing concerns about its novelty and speed to market. We hope to set the record straight so that we can safely return to doing the things we love.
Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are messenger RNA vaccines, or mRNA, which teach our bodies what COVID-19 looks like, so it can produce antibodies that protect us against the illness. While these will be the first mRNA-based vaccines to be used, the technology has been studied for decades. Scientists around the world have tested the use of viral mRNA on viruses like rabies, Zika and even the flu. Advances in biochemistry have allowed this style of vaccination to provide the protection from COVID-19 that we see today.
A common misconception of mRNA vaccines is that they change your DNA. This theory, popularized through social media, has been debunked by scientists, yet continues to seep into public opinion. mRNA is used as a template for protein construction. For the COVID-19 vaccines, proteins produced are known as SARS “spike” proteins found on the surface of the virus. These proteins are harmless and act as antigens, which our immune system uses to identify the virus. By introducing our immune system to these proteins prior to coronavirus exposure, our bodies will “know the enemy,” so to speak, and mount a much more effective defense. These vaccines are like an instruction manual for our cells to follow in order to defend against the virus.
Of those who are hesitant to get the vaccine, many share concerns related to the time span in which the COVID-19 vaccines were developed in comparison to other vaccines. However, this is not a cause for concern. Normal trials and safety measures were not overlooked during the process for vaccine approval, but, with the advent of new technology, these tests were performed more efficiently in a shorter time span. Scientists across the globe were able to mobilize together to prioritize the vaccine minimizing any of the usual delays. Also contributing to speed were better and faster technologies and the large numbers of people that volunteered for clinical trials.
After a year of stay-at-home orders, and impacts to our day-to-day lives, we are on the precipice of normalcy — but only if we can get to herd immunity. Herd immunity is established when enough people get vaccinated or are exposed to the virus. Experts believe that 70% of the U.S. population will need to be vaccinated for us to reach this threshold for COVID-19. When it comes to establishing herd immunity, every vaccination counts.
We implore all New Jerseyans, this STEM Month, when the vaccine is available to you, to trust the science and get the vaccine, for yourselves, for your community and for our return to normalcy.
Julia Jankojc is a junior at Matawan Regional High School’s STEM Academy. She has competed in the New Jersey Science League and was a finalist in the New Jersey Brain Bee. Justin Roskam is a biochemistry and molecular biology student at Drew University and a licensed EMT, where he has seen firsthand the effects of COVID-19 on his patients and fellow health care workers. They are 2021 Governor’s STEM Scholars.
The Governor’s STEM Scholars is a program of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey. It introduces New Jersey high school and college students to the state’s vast STEM economy. Applications are now open for the 2022 class of Governor’s STEM Scholars at www.govstemscholars.com.