Vaccines and US

Ellen Stofan

Smithsonian Under Secretary for Science and Research


Good morning, I'm Ellen Stofan, the Under Secretary for Science 
and Research at the Smithsonian. I wanted to talk to you about the COVID-19 vaccine, where it came from, why it could be developed so quickly, and why I got the vaccine as soon as I could last year.

First, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines uses something called MRNA - messenger RNA. 
The COVID-19 virus has what are called spike proteins on its surface that allow it to attach to our cells and cause infection. Messenger RNA vaccines, don't, again Pfizer and Moderna, they don't carry any COVID-19 virus unlike most vaccines you've probably gotten in your life that do carry live virus. Instead, they carry this MRNA which is carrying instructions to your cells to make just a little spike protein. Your immune system sees this spike protein and says "Yikes! Foreign!" and learns how to kill it. Then if you get infected with COVID-19, your body is ready to fight off that spike protein covered virus and it'll help prevent you from getting infected.
The MRNA instructions don't last in your body, they go away almost immediately.

Now this this technology or MRNA, messenger RNA, has been worked on for decades.
Since the 1990s, scientists have been studying whether it could be used to fight other diseases 
like the flu, Zika, and AIDS, and it's been used in cancer research. 

When the pandemic started epidemiologists from all over the country, all over the world,  stopped working on almost every other disease and worked on COVID-19 because they knew how dangerous this pandemic was. Almost right away, some began working on MRNA because it was their specialty. Thinking that because of those spiky little proteins on the surface of the COVID virus that maybe MRNA would work -- and it did.

One of my favorite stories of this whole fight against COVID is one I urge you to Google. It's about a woman named Kizzmekia Corbett. She's an African American woman who was one of the key developers of the Moderna vaccine. And of course that's even a fun story because Dolly Parton was one of the the major funders behind Moderna getting started and being able to fight off COVID-19.

The development of these vaccines has been a heroic story with real heroes. All of the scientists and the technicians in the lab working nonstop to develop this vaccine. Looking at every technique available and going through endless experiments to make sure the vaccines worked and that they were safe.

Again, the vaccine is new, but the technology behind it is not. It is very well studied.

Why did I get the vaccine? First of all, I'm a big believer in vaccines. They've saved so many lives over history, from smallpox to polio. I also had a new baby granddaughter in my house and elderly parents who live in an assisted living facility that I wanted to be able to eventually go visit, and make sure that they were protected.

I also personally didn't want to get long COVID. This is where you have lingering symptoms of COVID that go on and some of my friends have gotten it and I've watched them suffer from it.

But I also I wanted to help my community. If all of us who can get vaccinated, we can help stop the mutation of the virus into even more harmful forms.

So, for you and your family, and for all of us, if you still have concerns about getting vaccinated, I really urge you to go to trusted websites like the CDC or talk to your family Doctor.

Vaccines, save lives.

The Smithsonian's Under Secretary for Science and Research, Ellen Stofan, discusses how science supported her decision to get vaccinated.

Last update: May 11, 2022