Science

Animation by René Lapoutre

What is your best bet

The vaccine or your immune system?

Animation by René Lapoutre
Many students who refused the corona vaccine think their own immune system is strong enough to withstand the virus. But that immune system is in fact the problem, should you contract the coronavirus.
14 September om 12:53 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 15 September 2021
om 11:20 uur.
September 14 at 12:53 PM.
Last modified on September 15, 2021
at 11:20 AM.

Door Christien Boomsma

14 September om 12:53 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 15 September 2021
om 11:20 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

September 14 at 12:53 PM.
Last modified on September 15, 2021
at 11:20 AM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

‘I’m worried that my immune system might take a real hit because of the vaccine’, international and European law student Maartje said in an article published in UKrant last week. She won’t get the jab, either.

At the same time, Maartje is trusting her immune system to save her in case she does get infected. Just her like her friend John and physics student Thom. They prefer to focus on healthy eating and exercise. They’re not worried that Bill Gates is tracking them or that the government is trying to control them through the vaccine. They just don’t really see the point. After all, they are young and healthy. Surely they can handle a little virus?

Hearing their reasoning, UG vaccinologist Anke Huckriede shakes her head. She’s been studying the body’s immune response to vaccines her entire professional life. Up until recently, she specialised in the influenza vaccine. Corona has changed her life. Together with immunologist Debbie van Baarle and geneticist Lude Franke, she’s working on figuring out why some people respond so severely to the coronavirus that they end up in intensive care, while others walk away with barely any symptoms. 

Holy grail

One of the resources she uses is the LifeLines database, which collects the genetic data of 135,000 people in the north of the Netherlands. She collected blood samples from people who contracted covid-19, whether they had serious symptoms or not, and checks how the virus affected their immune systems. For instance, how many antibodies they have, or how the T-cell count changed, which regulates the immune response.

But she still doesn’t know why some people do get sick and others don’t. ‘That’s the holy grail of covid research. Loads of scientists are trying to figure it out’, she says.

What she does now is finding out what goes wrong when it goes wrong. The problem isn’t that the immune system doesn’t respond to the unfamiliar intruder. The problem is that it goes into overdrive.

‘The first thing that happens after infection is your own immune system responding to the virus’, Huckriede explains. ‘It creates these proteins called cytokines that give you things like a fever, a headache, or muscle pains. These covid-19 symptoms are caused by your body trying to get rid of the virus.

Battle

After approximately a week, your body enters phase two of the battle between the virus and your immune system. ‘The defence mechanisms that have been developed are now being switched on’, says Huckriede. Your body is now making antibodies and T-cells. ‘Those T-cells attack the infected cells and destroy them.’

However, this is not a simple process. On top of that, the dying infected cells release a substance that primes your body’s alarm system. ‘This draws more cells to the lungs, where they work to clean up the mess. However, the does lead to a severe inflammatory response in the lungs. 

The argument ‘I’m young so I’m not at risk’ is faulty

It stops people from being able to take in sufficient oxygen, landing them in intensive care. ‘It could be said that people whose immune response is too strong are the ones affected the most’, says Huckriede.

Top athletes

But it’s impossible to predict who these people will be. One thing is certain: it’s not necessarily the weakest ones. ‘I saw number from Germany showing that more than five hundred top athletes are suffering from long covid. They tend to be very healthy people.’

Huckriede admits that the elderly are much more likely to end up in hospital. ‘It’s just that the argument “I’m young so I’m not as much at risk” is faulty.’ 

She also thinks young people underestimate the risks. For people Huckriede’s age, the risk of being hospitalised is certainly greater: approximately 10 to 12 percent. One out of a hundred students ends up in hospital. But even that is a substantial number, Huckriede says.

Then there’s a risk you run of getting long covid: months of fatigue and problems focusing. Long covid also occurs among people who came through the initial infection with no noticeable symptoms. Not a lot of research has been done yet, but it looks like students have approximately a 10 percent chance of long covid. There’s also a great risk of losing your sense of taste and smell: 30 to 35 percent, half of which is long term. 

Not a panacea

‘None of that sounds particularly fun’, says Huckriede. ‘It’s great that a vaccine can prevent this.’

What about the immune system that people who won’t get the jab are trying to protect? Won’t the vaccine damage it? 

Huckriede once again shakes her head. ‘At this point in time, 1.5 to two billion vaccines have been administered’, she says. ‘If it truly had devastating results, we would’ve known by now.’

In fact, those nearly two billion vaccines have proven to be very beneficial. 

After two billion vaccinations, we would know if it had devastating results

It’s not a panacea, Huckriede admits. Vaccinated people can still get covid-19. ‘The current vaccine is administered intramuscularly, which means it works really well against the virus in the lungs, but has more trouble fighting the virus particles in the upper respiratory system’, she says. ‘That’s because the immune system up that is much weaker, to prevent from every single substance in the environment making us sick.

Chain reaction

However, it does work great to prevent hospitalisation, which is what you’ll need when your own immune system turns on you. Because your body already has antibodies, they can quickly attach themselves to the surface of the virus. ‘That prevents the virus from attaching itself to cells in the lungs, which means you won’t have any symptoms.’ This also means the dreaded chain reaction that could lead to someone ending up on a ventilator doesn’t take place.

That’s a good thing. 

The chance of infecting others also becomes much smaller. Not non-existent, but in addition to the 50 to 60 percent lower risk of getting infected yourself, the chance of infectious particles in your nose is also lower. Even if you are infectious after all, the time period during which you are is much shorter than for unvaccinated people. ‘All in all, you’ll have a much lower chance of transferring the virus.’

That’s another good thing.

Exposing

Huckriede wants to try and convince students that it’s important to get vaccinated. She knows she can do it. She doesn’t think they’re hesitant because they don’t trust the government. ‘I think they’re all just repeating each other. Social media has made it so easy for people to find things that agree with their opinions.’

Please don’t underestimate the risks of an infection, she pleads. Weigh them up against the risks of getting vaccinated. Also weigh them up against the risk you’re exposing the people around you to. What if you infect your vulnerable parents, or your grandparents? What if you give the virus to a vulnerable student in class? ‘Do you want to be the one responsible for that?’

The speed with which the vaccine was developed didn’t affect its safety, Huckriede says. It all happened so quickly because similar vaccines for other coronaviruses had already been produced and because it was fast-tracked, with governments paying extra money for it. This means that:

  • the three legally mandated test phases didn’t occur consecutively, but simultaneously
  • the vaccine wasn’t registered when it was finished. Instead, registration was an ongoing process
  • production of the vaccine started before it was officially approved

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