The mRNA Vaccine and the Paradigm Shift

Eric Medlin
5 min readApr 14, 2021

Viral science will never be the same after the COVID-19 vaccines of the past year.

The Moderna mRNA vaccine. Source: CNBC

The world today does not know how to fully process the introduction of the vaccines that are on their way to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Several recent articles have done an admirable job of explaining how the vaccines work and the many steps in the supply chain necessary to get a vaccine from idea to reality. But the idea that vaccines are effective and widespread enough to end the pandemic still seems farfetched to some scientists. In a recent Meet the Press interview, Dr. Michael Osterholm argued that the pandemic was nowhere near over and that people should not engage in activities where they are around others at all, likening mask-wearing and other public health measures to a “fireproof suit that works 90 to 95 percent of the time.”

Breathless news headlines have focused on the danger of some variants and the need to continue following social distancing guidelines as evidence that the vaccines are not an absolute cure for the coronavirus pandemic. One popular topic for these misleading stories is the length of effectiveness. News outlets have distorted studies to suggest that the vaccines only provide six months of immunity, when in reality it is hard to know the multi-year effectiveness of a vaccine that has only existed for a year.

A major reason for this confusion is that the remarkable vaccine drive has resulted from both a shift in regulations and a massive upgrade in technology. Moderna has existed as a company for the past ten years. But no mRNA vaccine had ever been approved by the FDA. Therefore, there is hesitance to make significant declarations about the importance of the vaccine. Scientists are reluctant to go outside of the confines of scientific studies. The FDA has been exceedingly slow in revising its guidance about the activities of vaccinated Americans. This cautious approach may end up being dangerous if it contributes to the nation’s high vaccine reluctance.

These questions have arisen because of the unique nature of the moment we live in for our understanding of vaccines. The mRNA vaccine is not just a new scientific tool of the nanotechnology age. It is the beginning of a paradigm shift, a period that will completely change the assumptions behind public health and…

Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.