An Analogy for How New Vaccines Work (and an Apology to Fans of the Book “War and Peace”)

I work in healthcare analytics and I LOVE using analogies to help make confusing situations more relatable. My current favorite for this pandemic is how the various vaccines work.  I hope it helps your vaccine-hesitant family/friends feel more confident receiving this life-saving vaccine.

There are 3 (maybe 4) paths to immunity.  One is to actually get sick with the virus.  If you live, you probably won’t get as sick next time you are infected.  Another is to get one of the more traditional vaccines, which have an inactivated copy of the entire virus, like a copy of a tediously long and boring book, but with a couple pages removed keep it from boring you to death.  If you ever re-read the entire book, your body will say “Oh crap, I’ve read that before I can’t believe you nearly tricked me into reading it again!”

Sadly, for both “natural immunity” and traditional vaccines, you pretty much have to re-read the whole book and if there are ANY differences, like the person translating it into your language might have mis-spelled some words… well, you get sick again.  That’s why the flu vaccine has to be re-engineered every year, so our bodies can be “warned” about what to “avoid reading”.

Enter the new mRNA vaccines!  They do NOT teach your body to recognize an entire copy of “War and Peace”, instead, they teach your body to recognize the title of the book and the most likely cover-art.  Minor mutations to the text of the book, like a new paragraph written in Hindi, are irrelevant.  The cover still has that picture and says “War and Peace. Now with a note in Hindi. Please read me!”  But your body says “Oh hell no!  You have handed me a copy, and I might hand it to some other unsuspecting person, but I’m not going to waste 10 days in quarantine reading this!”

Like all analogies, this one isn’t perfect (some people consider that book a classic). And instead of just passing along a single copy, an infected person might pass it along to MANY others. The key is, we want to “warn” enough people in time to stop the spread before the “cover” of the book (the picture of the spike proteins) has time to mutate enough to fool more people into spending 10-days with a tube down their throats “re-reading War and Peace”.