A hilarious explanation of how the mRNA vaccine works that anyone can understand

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have become far more familiar with epidemiology and immunology than we ever planned to be. For those of us who are not particularly science-minded, it's been a heck of a journey. Some of us appreciate science and have the utmost respect for scientists, but harbor zero desire to delve into the scientific details ourselves. Or at least we didn't, before a stupid virus upended life as we know it.

Some viral terminology has become household vocab at this point. (Seriously, who ever expected "infection rates" and "variants" to be things the average American discusses around the dinner table?) Others have been a bit hard to grasp, like how the mRNA vaccine works.

You know when you're studying a tricky topic and you come across a word you don't know, but when you look up the word the definition had three other words you have to look up, and each of those definitions have words you don't know, and so on? That's what it's like to try to understand the mRNA vaccine for the average non-scientist.


We do want to know how it works, though. From what the sciencey folks say, it's an amazing breakthrough with far-reaching potential that could change the game for lots of diseases. If we're going to inject something into our bodies, we should know what it's doing. We just don't want to have to get a degree in virology to understand it.

There are some good basic explainers out there that simplify how the mRNA vaccine works, but most of them still include terms and concepts that we feel like we should probably remember from high school biology class but don't. What we need (or want) is someone to explain it to us like we're five.

Thankfully, somebody has.

Vick Krishna has dramatized what happens when the mRNA vaccine goes into your body in a TikTok video, and it's the clearest layman's explanation a non-scientist could hope for. For those of us who have a hard time visualizing the whole mRNA-spike protein-ribosome-antigen-antibody thing, this skit makes it super easy to see exactly how it works.

If you want to get slightly more scientific about it, the vaccine sends mRNA (literally "messenger" RNA) into your body with instructions for how to manufacture the spike proteins (pokey, fork-like proteins) that exist on the outside of the coronavirus. Your ribosomes follow the instructions and make the spike protein. In the meantime, your body (rather poetically) kills the messenger RNA. Your immune system sees the spike protein your ribosomes made, kicks into gear, and starts making the antibodies that will destroy the spike protein whenever it sees it (and by extension, whatever it's attached to, like the coronavirus). Then, if/when the coronavirus invades your body, your immune system is ready. It has the antibodies ready to deploy to take the virus out by attacking those spike proteins.

Cool, huh? Not nearly as fun of an explanation as "fork hands," though.

Doctors, immunologists, and epidemiologists are praising Krishna's simple skit for how clear it makes the mRNA vaccine process, with some dubbing his video a masterclass in science communication. Naturally, it's a bit more complex than that in reality, but the basics are all most of us really need to (or want to) know. More of this kind of science lesson, please, across the board.

You can follow Vick Krishna on TikTok and Instagram.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less