What Are Vaccines?

A scientist working at our partners Imperial College London explains what vaccines are and what the latest developments mean.

If you have ever had a cold or the flu, it was probably caused by a virus. If you have had a cold sore, it was definitely caused by a virus. Viruses are tiny particles that can enter our bodies and make us ill. Some viruses are more harmful than others. It is hard to avoid them. We can breathe some viruses in without even realising it.

Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria that make us ill, but they don’t affect viruses. But vaccines can stop us getting ill from a virus. We take a vaccine – or get vaccinated – by swallowing medicine or having an injection. Vaccines are like Superman’s Kryptonite for viruses – the best thing to defeat them! 

Scientists spend years working on vaccines to prevent viruses from infecting us. The first-ever vaccine was for a disease called smallpox. This disease killed 30% of people who caught it. The smallpox vaccine was developed over 220 years ago by English scientist Edward Jenner. Thanks to the vaccine, smallpox was wiped from the face of the Earth. Nobody will ever catch the disease again! Scientists think ancient Egyptians suffered from smallpox, over 2,300 years ago. It can take a long time and a lot of work to find a vaccine.

Currently, a virus called SARS-CoV-2 is causing illness and death around the world. This virus comes from a family of viruses called coronaviruses. You can say that SARS-CoV-2 is a type, or strain, of coronavirus. If this virus enters your body, it causes a disease called COVID-19.

Many scientists all over the world, including those at Imperial College London, are working hard to find a vaccine that stops COVID-19, and recently this hard work produced some great news. Scientists from two companies, Pfizer and BioNTech, have put their heads together and it looks like they might found a vaccine – they say that their vaccine is 90% effective. Another company, Moderna, has discovered a vaccine that they say is almost 95% effective. This means that if 100 people caught the virus, 95 of them would not get ill. And other companies and universities are trialling a number of vaccines right now.

This exciting news means the world might soon be able to go back more or less to how things were previously. Watch this space for more updates! We hope to have some more exciting news from the hardworking and dedicated scientists at Imperial soon!

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