2404: First Thing
Title text: Then I'm going to go on a weeks-long somatic hypermutation bender, producing ever-more targeted antibodies, while I continue to remain distanced and follow guidance from public health authorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most consequential and broadly unpleasant events in living memory. As of the publication of this strip, it is estimated to have caused over 1.5 million deaths worldwide and over 300,000 deaths in the United States. Many more cases that have not resulted in fatality often need serious medical support and/or have lasting implications. Even for those who have been spared infection, measures to slow the spread of the virus have been highly impactful and have been ongoing for nearly a year.
In consequence of all of this, many people are excited for the vaccine (which will hopefully end the pandemic). Many people online have been sharing plans for what they'll do after getting the vaccine, like "see my friends" or "travel the world." In this comic, Ponytail takes the phrase literally, listing not what she will voluntarily choose to do but what low-level involuntary systems in her body will do immediately after getting the vaccine:
- First she will make some spike proteins. This implies that she took an mRNA vaccine (e.g. from BioNTech or Moderna) or a viral-vector vaccine like the ones from AstraZeneca, Janssen Vaccines, or CanSino. mRNA vaccines contain RNA encoding for the viral proteins, which is then used by Ponytail's cell to make the spike protein. Viral-vector vaccines contain DNA, which the viral "shell" introduces into human cells, which then manufacture spike proteins. (In contrast, subunit-containing vaccines like the ones from Novavax contain actual duplicates of viral proteins to sensitize the immune systems, and inactivated/weakened virus-based vaccines contain the actual virus in question, but modified to not cause disease, e. g. the vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm.)
- The spike protein made by Ponytail will then be recognized by her immune system as foreign (as would the proteins of the real coronavirus) and subsequently engulfed by the dendritic cells in a process called phagocytosis.
- The dendritic cells then chop the spike proteins into small pieces (called antigens) and present them on their surface using MHCII proteins.
- This will then allow T-cells to recognize these pieces and become activated if they have a matching T-cell receptor.
The next step is mentioned in the title text:
- The T-cells will activate B-cells, who will then try to make antibodies to bind the spike protein. Since the B-cells don't know what a good antibody looks like, they just randomly generate antibodies through a process of somatic hypermutation. Then they check if the antibody binds the antigen presented by the dendritic cells. If it doesn't the antibody is discarded, if it does, it is kept and improved on by another round of somatic hypermutation, to create an antibody which binds even better.
- Finally Ponytail mentions the things she herself (as opposed to her immune system) has to do: continue to use social distancing, hand washing, wearing a mask, etc.
The last point, which are the only things that Ponytail will choose to do is important, for a number of reasons. The vaccines currently available offer a great deal of protection to an individual patient, but that protection takes several days to even begin in a significant way. Full immunity will likely require several weeks and an additional dose. In addition, while highly effective, the current crop of vaccines are not 100% effective. And even those who develop immunity can become contaminated with the virus on their person and then transmit it to others.
For all of these reasons, there is a very real fear of people who receive vaccinations immediately abandoning all other precautions and continuing to spread the virus. Genuinely ending the pandemic will require precautions to remain in place until enough of the population is vaccinated that a combination of high levels of population immunity and other distancing precautions lower the infection rate to a controllable level. Abandoning safety precautions before this occurs could extend the pandemic and cost lives. Accordingly, Ponytail's intent is to be responsible and maintain all appropriate precautions until such time as it's safe to change them.
- [Ponytail and Cueball are walking toward the right side of a single panel. Ponytail is gesturing with one arm.]
- Ponytail: The first thing I'm going to do after I get the vaccine?
- Ponytail: Definitely make a bunch of spike proteins and engulf them with dendritic cells.
- Ponytail: Then I'll probably display the antigens to my T-cells...
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