From Inoculation to COVID Vaccination: The Wonder of It All

Me after dose #1 of the Moderna vaccine, outside of my car.

Skip this post if you detest emotionally-charged posts because that’s what it’s going to be.

From March 4th: I got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today, jumpstarting my immune system to protect me against COVID-19. How, you might ask? I volunteered at our campus vaccine clinic. At the end of the shift, they had extra doses to distribute to the volunteers. I got lucky. Of course, we (as in the faculty) should have been included anyway. But that is (and was) another post.

Instead, I want to revel in what a true miracle this is. My use of this word should not convey surprise or lack of scientific rigor. Rather, it refers to, as I say above in the title, my absolute amazement that we have come to this point. For the world to have multiple effective vaccines against a strain of coronavirus that is little more than a year old, is almost inconceivable to me, a layperson who has never worked in a lab.

This happened because of the ability to build upon what others have done to move up a few steps. To capture knowledge, distribute it, and then preserve the content for future innovators. Our moment now occurred because of thousands of experiments that produced nothing, failed to support the hypothesis, or protect the test subjects from becoming infected.

Salk’s vaccine emerged decades after the first scientist prematurely promised a vaccine (40 years, to be exact). But we also need to consider what was not known when that initial declaration was made in 1912.

I am so incredulously grateful that we can be at this moment. We have never had a point in time in which an outbreak grew into a pandemic and while it was still ravaging society, scientists successfully developed a vaccine. In 1918, some scientists claimed to have a vaccine and injected soldiers with vials of something. However, since they didn’t even know that influenza was a virus, it did little to protect anyone.

How can anyone doubt such innovation? Why would a person question such an amazing gift? Even stranger are the conspiracy theories about the vaccine. How would a microchip fit inside the syringe? Wouldn’t you see it floating around? How would it fit through the needle?

What had to come together for this moment? It’s not just about what’s in the syringe. We had to have the technology to create the vials that contain the vaccine, the syringes themselves, and the needles. Take a step back and add the freezers that can store the vaccine, gloves and an understanding to protect those administering the vaccine. Lister and the process of antisepsis to prevent infection from dirty needles. I could go on and on.
Instead I am going to eat some cheesecake and watch TV. Because I can.

Written on April 3rd: I received my 2nd dose on the morning of April 1st. I’ve waited until the side effects have subsided to write out my thoughts.

Once again, I felt equally amazed as the needle went into my arm. It only lasted a second and it barely hurt. I felt like king of the world as I strutted out of there, beaming under my mask. Ten hours later, I started to feel the effects — first tired and then achy all over. Around 2:30 a.m., I woke up with chills, more aches, a headache, and some nausea. Fortunately, the latter two subsided by morning. Friday was a Netflix day, referring to the only thing I felt like doing, especially when fever set in during the early afternoon. By evening, though, I felt much better. And today (Saturday), I am 100% myself. Totally worth it for protection against COVID-19.

For this round, I’ve been thinking more about inoculation than 20th century vaccinations. It is unclear exactly when inoculation first started in Turkey, India, and China. We only know when it was brought to Europe and Colonial America. An enslaved person, Onesimus, first conveyed to Reverend Cotton Mather that intentionally infecting oneself with smallpox could ward off a deadlier version of the disease. Inoculation, also known as variolation, had already been practiced in India, Turkey and China. When smallpox broke out in Boston in 1721, Mather encouraged local physicians to try inoculation. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the only doctor willing to attempt the dangerous practice and did so with success. Even with early 18th century record-keeping, it was clear that those who were inoculated with smallpox were significantly less likely to die of the disease. (For more on this story, read my book).

Unlike vaccination, inoculation produces an infection of smallpox. Therefore, it wasn’t practiced unless there was an outbreak of the disease. Following 1721, inoculation became more common and refined with each epidemic, playing a crucial role in protecting soldiers during the Revolutionary War against the disease. At the turn of the 19th century, Dr. Edward Jenner’s work led to vaccination as a replacement for inoculation, sparking immunity without having to suffer from an infection of the disease itself.

So many brilliant people have come together to make the COVID-19 vaccines happen. But we can’t forget where the ideas originated. Like I said on March 4th, this feels like a miracle, NOT because the process was rushed (it wasn’t), but because of all of the components that had to come together over hundreds of years for us to have this moment. It is truly amazing.

Me after dose 2 in the 15-minute waiting period