On Hot Dogs, Messenger RNA, and Free Will

So, yeah, it’s been a while again. Sorry. No excuses, let’s just jump into it.

It’s fair to say this blog has made it pretty clear that the Machine reveres science. And if you somehow still inexplicably read this blog, you probably have some level of reverence for science yourself. And if you have some level of reverence for science, you’ve probably received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by now. So what I am about to spend a few paragraphs saying here will be clamorously preaching to the proverbial choir. Feel free to sing along nonetheless.

If you are like most Americans, you probably celebrated this past Fourth of July like none you had celebrated in quite some time. While the pandemic is far from over, those of us who’ve been vaccinated and hang out with people who’ve done the same rightfully spent some time re-acquainting ourselves with our maskless friends and family, enjoying some good burgers and dogs and brisket along the way. And maybe a beer or two. Speaking of dogs, you may also have heard that Joey Chestnut won his 14th Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. He consumed 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Most of us don’t eat dogs that fast, but most of us do eat them. Which brings me to the COVID vaccine.


Stay with me on this. A major argument among the unvaccinated is, “I won’t take the vaccine because I don’t like the idea of putting something in my body when I don’t know what’s really in it”. Enter the hot dog. Does anybody really know what’s inside a hot dog, besides the people at whatever packing plant sews them up? I will wager the majority of anti-vaxxers have eaten more than their fair share of hot dogs. How many have visited http://hot-dog.org, where you can find this handy-dandy list of ingredients that might be found in hot dogs: ascorbic acid/sodium ascorbate, autolyzed yeast extract, beef (maybe the only one you knew), beef stock, celery powder, cherry powder (what the…), citric acid, collagen casing, dextrose, flavoring (nice big category there), garlic puree, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactate/diacetate, lauric alginate, maltodextrin, mechanically separated chicken/turkey (um, what?), modified food starch (love the word modified), monosodium glutamate (yep, MSG), natural sheep casing (mmm), oleoresin of paprika (sounds like the name of an ancient monarch), phosphates, pork, salt, smoke flavoring, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, sorbitol, soy protein concentrate, spices, sugar and corn syrup (they don’t just add flavor, they promote browning), water, and yeast extract. So a lot of people will wrap this in a bun with an equally long list of multi-syllabic ingredients, smear processed condiments on it, and scarf it down like it’s the last thing between them and death by starvation. But they won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine because they’re not sure what’s in it.

Oh, by the way, here’s what’s in a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer (the one I got a couple of months ago): Messenger RNA (mRNA), lipids (which protect the mRNA), salts (to balance the acidity in your body), and sugar (which helps the molecules maintain their shape during freezing). Not a mechanically separated bird or hydrolyzed protein to be found. In fact, while there is a long list of ingredients in a hot dog that aren’t in a COVID-19 vaccine, there is only one ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine that isn’t also in a hot dog: the mRNA.

So about that mRNA part. Scientists have been working for many years on this technology, and it will revolutionize the way vaccines are developed and deployed moving forward. The COVID-19 vaccines weren’t distributed faster than any previous vaccine by accident – the framework was already in place, we just needed the will. Now we have a plug-and-play technology to address COVID-19 variants and future viral diseases, which will allow us as a society to respond much more quickly. What does mRNA do? It encodes the genetic instructions for how to make one key recognizable part of the COVID-19 virus, so that our bodies can develop an immune response and remember what to look for in case the real virus tries to invade. Does it put up some sort of wall to prevent you from getting the virus itself? No, if you are exposed to someone with the virus, it will probably enter your body in some manner. But once it enters, your body will be ready for it, which means getting the vaccine makes you less likely to get ill, overwhelmingly less likely to get severely ill, and even more overwhelmingly less likely to die.

So basically, the only thing that’s in a COVID-19 vaccine that isn’t in a hot dog is a “deactivated” chunk (not even all) of the virus. Anti-vaxxers are afraid to put that in their bodies, but in addition to inhaling hot dogs, they’re just fine with playing Russian roulette on the real thing.

Finally, there’s the real foundation for most resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines – they’ve become political, like just about everything else. One of our political parties (guess which) has seized on this topic in exactly the same way they seized onto the mask mandates: a lot of people just don’t like being told what to do. But here’s the thing: there is no equivalent vaccine mandate. Nobody is being forced by the Government to get the vaccine. People are just being told by informed authorities that it’s the right thing to do – although it’s admittedly difficult to hear that message amidst the cacophony of misinformation flying around about viruses, vaccines, and immunity. The vaccine isn’t impinging on anybody’s free will. We all have the free will to get it (and be safer) or not get it (and be nonsensically more at risk, while also increasing the chances of new variants that can circumvent the vaccines’ protection).

On that last point, the mRNA technology becomes even more crucial. Vaccine makers are already working on boosters and new versions to tackle current and future variants of the COVID-19 virus, as well as other potential pandemic-inducing diseases. Those of us that come along for the ride and stay up to date on our vaccinations will be in relatively good shape. Those of us that don’t – well maybe there will be a new category to the Darwin Awards before long.

I think we have a wiener.