Vaccines are one of the most effective tools we have in preventing and reducing the burden of infectious diseases. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines are once again poised to change the tide in our favor in the fight against a deadly virus. But how exactly do vaccines work? And are they safe? “You can think of your body’s immune system like an orchestra,” says Yale immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki, PhD. “The different functions of the immune response are like different instruments. And vaccines work like sheet music for the orchestra, telling the immune system what to do and how to do it.” Different viruses require different types of immune responses in order to confer protection, and some of them can be complex. But with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a simple type of response is all that’s needed to prevent infection. “You just need to trigger an antibody response where the antibodies bind to the surface of the virus and prevent it from entering our cells,” says Ruslan Medzhitov, PhD, professor of immunobiology. “And these types of vaccines tend to be extremely safe.” In addition to the inherent safety of this kind of “training” for the immune system, experts emphasize that the expedited timeline of COVID-19 vaccine development is not a reflection of lax safety standards. “Before a vaccine is approved, it goes through a rigorous amount of testing for safety and efficacy,” says Iwasaki. “So, once a vaccine is made to be publicly available, we should be lining up.” Watch this video to learn more about the fundamentals of how vaccines work, how they are developed, and the importance of vaccination for public health.
This week’s Nature Podcast looks at: Triggering swarming behaviour in locusts, antibody therapies as a bridge to Covid-19 vaccine, and new insights into how humans synchronize.
In this episode:
01:56 Understanding swarming behaviour
Swarms of migratory locusts regularly devastate crops across the world, but why these swarms form has been a mystery. Now, a team of researchers have identified a compound that causes solitary locusts to come together in their billions – a finding that could have practical applications for preventing this behaviour. Research article: Guo et al.; News & Views: Catching plague locusts with their own scent
We discuss the role that monoclonal antibodies may have as therapeutics to treat COVID-19. Although promising, there are numerous hurdles to overcome before these drugs can be used. News: Antibody therapies could be a bridge to a coronavirus vaccine — but will the world benefit?
15:30 Research Highlights
A satellite’s fecal find reveals that Antarctica’s emperor penguin population is much larger than previously thought, and changing how genes are named to avoid Excel’s autocorrect. Research Highlight: Satellites find penguins by following the poo; Research article: Bruford et al.
17:49 An out-of-sync arts project
A collaborative art-science project featuring a network of connected violinists has given new insights into how humans synchronize. Research article: Shahal et al.
23:51 Briefing Chat
We take a look at some highlights from the Nature Briefing. This time we find out about the odd immune system of the anglerfish, and the beetle that can pass through a frog’s digestive system without coming to harm. Wired: The Anglerfish Deleted Its Immune System to Fuse With Its Mate; Research paper: Sugiura
With antibodies having implications for both our understanding of previous coronavirus infections and potential future immunity, Nicola Davis talks to Prof Eleanor Riley about how best to test for them and asks whether antibodies are the only thing we should be looking for.