Biosphere Daily Earth Science Repost Urban Environmentalist

Viruses, Vaccines, and Antibodies

Winning a battle against ancient foes who are only half alive.

First, I must disclose I am not a doctor or medical researcher. But, I have investigated enough to understand the basics of bio-farmed viral vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and mRNA vaccines. I looked into the subject as part of a larger endeavor I am currently working on, mainly to understand the age-old battle between humans and viruses and to try and peek into what the future may hold for humans in this battle.

All indications are that viruses have a history on Earth as long as that of cellular life. So, despite what we think about viruses, they have a proven track record of survival. We need to respect their tenacity if we want to learn how to defeat them.

Each lowly virus is just another species trying to survive like the rest of life on planet Earth. However, viruses occupy a fuzzy space on the edges of life. Their rules are different than the rules for the rest of us. They are sometimes referred to as pseudo-living organisms because viruses don’t have cells as their fundamental building blocks.

Almost all plant and animal life we see around us is cellular. Some organisms like bacteria are single-cell creatures, but other organisms like humans are multi-cellular, containing trillions of individual cells. Whether an organism is single-celled or multi-celled, it still reproduces by cellular division. Animal cells have the metabolic machinery to create new cells. Viruses, however, lack any metabolism and must reproduce by hijacking the cellular machinery of another organism. They can’t do it on their own.

Yet, a virus has aspects of cellular life. It possesses genetic material, reproduces, and evolves by natural selection. In these respects, it seems alive. Some viruses have DNA as their genetic material, but others stick with RNA. The simple but essential physical characteristics of a virus are nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) wrapped in a protein shell. Some viruses also have fatty materials call lipids in their outer shell.


Reproduction is the essence of species survival. Viruses can’t reproduce independently, but they have a highly successful strategy for overcoming this deficiency. Step one in the virus survival strategy occurs when it attaches itself to a host cell. Then, step two requires the virus to place its genetic material into the host cell. Injecting the material through the cell wall is a popular option. However, those viruses with lipids mixed into their protein shells can sometimes pass directly through the host cell’s membrane.

Once inside the cell, the viruses’ genetic material issues instructions for the host cell machinery to produce more individual virus particles. When the cell is loaded with newly minted virus particles, they burst free, and each of them proceeds to find another host cell.

It may be helpful to think of a viral attack as occurring in two stages. Once a virus is under our skin, we are infected. If that infection starts disrupting our normal body functions, then we move from infection to stage two — disease.

Damn, I’m sick again

Most people think in terms of the virus making them sick. But, in reality, it is the body’s own immune system causing much of the damage. The body’s immune system is a highly efficient seek-and-destroy machine preventing foreign objects from invading beneath our skin. But the immune response system needs to know when a problem arises. One class of molecules used by humans to scout out viruses are cytokines. These molecules act as an early warning system. They are the chemical alarm bells calling in an army of defensive cells and molecules when the need arises.

The body’s immune response focuses its defenses on areas where cytokines detect invaders. The immune system then sends aid to vanquish the intruders. But as immune defenses collect in a local area, they cause inflammation, redness, and swelling. So the signs of sickness, which most people recognize, are more about our immune system’s reaction to a virus than the virus itself.

Cytokine storms are a classic form of body malfunction leading to sickness and disease. Normally when a threat is neutralized, the cytokines will cease sending out alarm signals. But sometimes, things go wrong. When the cytokines should pack-up and go home, they stay and continue sending alerts to the rest of the immune system. Under these circumstances, the immune system keeps pumping defensive cells and molecules to the cytokine’s location. Thus, turning the body into a chaotic battlefield with a psychopathic commander in charge.

This immune-system attack results in blood vessels filling with unneeded defensive cells and molecules, all of which are trying to attack a non-existent enemy. These excess cells start crowding out other vital cells, therefore starving the body of oxygen and nutrients. The rogue immune molecules are powerful destroyers intended to work within the circulatory system. However, during cytokine storms, they flood through the body, and they can leak out of the circulatory system, where they start attacking healthy cells.

If left unchecked, cytokine storms inflict organ damage and possibly death. The patient then dies from a malfunctioning immune system, not the virus. Of course, the virus triggers the initial cytokine response, but the direct cause of death is a malfunctioning cytokine alarm system.

Stop that virus

The classic, modern route of dealing with viral infections is to treat them with an appropriate vaccine. The development of vaccines involves finding a compound that teaches your body to recognize a specific virus. Its ultimate goal is either eliminating or controlling the virus, thereby either preventing the infection or keeping it from developing into the disease stage.

So, the ideal solution is to stop a viral infection before it gains a foothold. This objective has traditionally been accomplished by having the immune system produce the correct antibodies. These antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that latch on to the virus and tag it as an intruder, marking it for attack by the rest of the immune system’s defenses. Some antibodies can even bind to a virus and subsequently prevent it from entering a person’s cells. Thus they neutralize the virus and stop and the infection in its tracks.

Traditional vaccines focus on educating our bodies. The vaccine tries to train our body to recognize the virus in question and produce the appropriate antibodies, so when the real thing appears, we are ready and prepared to defend against the infection. Sometimes this process involves injecting a living but weakened version of the virus into our arms. But why not simply mass-produce antibodies and use them directly, as opposed to waiting for our body to educate itself and start manufacturing its own little Y-shaped proteins.

Smart people have already thought of this and developed the science of monoclonal antibodies. The process first locates naturally occurring antibodies in a person after they have been vaccinated or infected — but not just any antibodies, only those with high efficacy and the ability to neutralize the virus before it enters any cells. Once located, the antibodies are then reproduced in laboratories and injected into the patient. The downside is these lab-produced monoclonal antibodies don’t stay with you for long. Naturally produced antibodies can last for years, but the monoclonal antibodies disappear after several months.

The latest technology to enter the healthcare arena is the mRNA vaccine. This acronym stands for messenger Ribonucleic acid. It holds some advantages over traditional vaccines by being easier and quicker to develop and produce than conventional vaccines. The mRNA vaccines use strands of messenger RNA wrapped in protective coatings. The RNA contains a code instructing the cell to make a piece of spike protein specific to the virus. The spike protein subsequently tricks the immune system into producing antibodies specific to the virus in question. These antibodies then vanquish the virus as soon as it appears.

If you have visions of taking the mRNA vaccine and altering your genetics to turn into Spiderman, forget them. Once the cell uses mRNA to produce a spike protein, the RNA string is broken down and dissolved, meaning the genetic material never enters the cell nucleus to affect your DNA.

Viruses are here to stay. Success in the rapid development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines opens the door for future hope. New viral pandemics will arise after COVID, and some of them will be more deadly. We can’t stop viruses from evolving. They have been in the survival game for billions of years, and they are good at it. The answer will lie in our ability to rapidly develop and distribute vaccines, stopping infection and disease in the early stages before society and our economy are brought to their knees. Early-stage virus protection and avoidance along with rapid vaccine development and distribution will be a winning combination in future pandemics.

Read more on Medium publications:

Environmental Articles on EarthSphere

Stories, Life Observations and more on Dropstone

Read my recent fictional adventure on the origins of life


The Science of COVID-19 Vaccines and Monoclonal Antibodies (Source: COVID-19 Prevention Network) —

Understanding How Vaccines Work (Source: CDC) —

Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines (Source: CDC) —

How Viruses Work (Source: How Stuff Works) —

How do viruses make us ill? (By Katherine Arden; BBC Science Focus Magazine) —

How quieting ‘blood storms’ could be key to treating severe COVID-19 (By KATHERINE J. WU; National Geographic) —

Feature image: Rabies virus with length of about 180nm (Modified) — By — , CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.