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Oregon researcher explains COVID-19 vaccine development and safety

Dr. Gaurav Sahay with OSU's School of Pharmacy helps research messenger RNA vaccines, the same type being developed for COVID-19.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As the world waits for a COVID-19 vaccine, a researcher in Oregon is lending perspective into how new vaccine technology could be approved for the first time.

Dr. Gaurav Sahay is an associate professor at Oregon State University's School of Pharmacy. He's optimistic about a coronavirus vaccine.

"The beginning of the end of the pandemic," Sahay put it.

Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna both report having vaccines that could be about 95% effective against the virus.

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The vaccines use messenger RNA technology (MRNA). Instead of containing real particles of the COVID-19 virus, MRNA vaccines contain proteins that act as codes.

"The virus...think of it as an intruder who has a key in hand that can unlock a gate and make copies of itself," Sahay explained. "This technology is telling the immune system, this is how that key looks like of this intruder, so if you see someone with this key, act."

The synthetic code is supposed to trigger an immune response to the real virus.

MRNA vaccines have been under development since the 1990s, but have never received FDA approval.

"This timeline is, I think, unprecedented," Sahay said. "Vaccines and vaccine development generally takes 20 to 30 years."

However, Sahay emphasized risks taken early during development will likely not be passed on to people who get an approved vaccine.

"Safety has not been compromised," he explained. "Yes, long-term effects and things like that always takes a couple of years to follow up with those patients, but it's not as if a step was missed...I will definitely be getting one."

Vaccine side effects and availability are still not clear yet.

In the big picture, Sahay and other researchers said development of an MRNA vaccine for COVID-19 could open doors to treating and preventing other diseases down the line.

"As much as it is a hard time right now, I think science has come through," Sahay added. "And things will get better."

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