Vaccines- Part 2

“With this vaccine, we shall cure the disease!”

“Er… actually, vaccines don’t ‘cure’ things, they are preventative-”

“With just a single dose, everyone will be immune to the virus!”

“Sooooo, it may take more than one dose depending on the nature of the virus-”

“We will become invincible!”

*“Actually, with some vaccines, you only have a period of time where your immune system is effectively trained against the virus and you have to get vaccinated again, like the flu shot-” *

“We can withstand any and all diseases!”

“…You’re not listening to me, are you? I can say anything I want right now. I actually have an extra invisible toe on both feet.”

“We shall destroy all viruses with this single vaccine!”

“And I am secretly a pink hippo that sings polka backwards songs for a living.”

Quick Life Update!

this is an image

So, firstly, I would like to say that… I am fully vaccinated against the Coronavirus! Yay! Took a bit, but finally got that mRNA in my system and became a member of team Pfizer!

Secondly, I have been juggling writing two grants for my PhD program for the past month and a half, alongside collecting all the data for my Research In Progress presentation (aptly named RIP… definitely was more soul sucking than expected). Hence the lack of blog posts. Which, to be honest, is quite upsetting as I have SO many post ideas coming up! I’ll also start writing for my lab’s blog soon, which I am beyond excited for! (Currently brainstorming with my Principle Investigator over some sweet posts like “how people eat blood and why that works chemically.” And “history of blood diseases and how those work”.)

(Oh right. I should probably let everyone know. I am a part of a lab that studies platelets in Inflammatory Bowel Disease, so we work with blood all of the time. Hence the bloody themed blog)

Anyhow, the moral of the story is that I am so eager to get back to writing somewhat normally again, especially since my creative writing in general has taken a hit with the combo of pandemic and graduate school. And now, for what you actually came for!

How To Use A Vaccine In Fiction?

this is an image

You’ve probably noticed that I skipped a post going over the many types of vaccines out there. That’s because those are insanely numerous and complicated. Some use mRNA, the ever-so-timely Coronavirus vaccine, to force your cells to produce the immune response. Others use a slurry of the proteins of the virus, and others still use killed, or attenuated viruses. The thing is, a lot of the principles of how these vaccines work requires a lot of basic cell biology, and I haven’t quite written that post yet to prime us for that. Once I get back into the swing of writing blog posts, we can swing by this topic again and go in depth of how some vaccines work. Plus, every vaccine has the same desired endpoint: to train your immune system for a potential viral infection, and does not cure you of the disease once you already have it.

And there we have the big idea: vaccines to not cure. The few times I have seen vaccines in science fiction, it’s usually to “cure” the disease present in the book. Alas, real vaccines can’t do that, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful and entertaining for your story! So let’s look at some ideas from (in my opinion) the “needs work” end of brainstorming to “sounds amazing, use it!”

1) I want to use the vaccine as a way to put microchips into people in my story!

NO. Please don’t. Remember in my previous post how I said that perpetuating those ideas in your stories is harmful? Yeah. As we are seeing in our COVID-19 pandemic, these are real misconceptions that some people have. Let’s not give into that false claim, even for fiction.

Now, to be fair: the idea of using a “track you at all times” is a terrifying and dystopian idea (George Orwell’s 1984, anyone?). However, remember those mobile devices that you carry around? Those kinda do that already. No, they are not under your skin, but most nowadays track your movements and, if you have internet connection on your cell, your search history. You already have a “microchip” at the ready for your story.

“But what if we had a culture where cell phones weren’t real?”

Well, the answer to that is to make the tracking device like the cell phone: desirable. Integral to the culture. Play it less like “1984” and more like “Brave New World.” That way, you can avoid the harmful “evil vaccine” trope and still touch on some fascinating themes at the same time! Maybe it’s a bracelet, maybe a tattoo even, but please, let’s not link vaccines to this “tracking” trope.

2) I want to use the vaccine to cause [insert condition/disease]

this is an image

Do not. See #1. Unless it is “flu like symptoms” that the vaccine is causing, or legitimate problems that real vaccines have (like some people have allergic reactions, like the vaccine for Hepatitis A), don’t link vaccines as the cause to legitimate diseases or conditions. Please.

Now, having a story focusing on someone who can’t get a vaccine because they get an allergic reaction or have a weakened immune system… now THAT is a cool idea! Something like leukemia could cause you to lose all of your memory b-cells, making getting the vaccine during treatment a moot point because you have lost your memory immune system for the moment. I don’t know if you could pull off an entire plot from the concept, but that would be a fascinating character trait to include in your story.

3) I want to use a vaccine as a simple way to cure my virus.

A yes. The simple deus ex machina use of the vaccine.

The issue with this, though, is that vaccines are meant to train your immune system before you encounter the virus. Getting the vaccine during or after your infection doesn’t flush the virus out of your system or assist your body in fighting off the virus.

Ah, but going after “a cure” for a dying loved one is a driving point for your plot! Fear not, we can still make it work! Rather than going after a vaccine, your character could go after a treatment, like supplemental oxygen. Or, the character can see that their loved one is not infected but at high risk of getting infected, so it’s now a race against time for your character to get access to the vaccine for them and their loved ones.

4) I want to use the creation of the vaccine as the plot of my story.

Totally viable! The process of creating a vaccine is fascinating!

this is an image

Well, a caveat: the lab work is fascinating to scientists. And that’s only counting the scientists who are interested in immunology. As my PI puts it, “Science is taking something from one tube and putting it in another.” What’s happening at a molecular level is insanely fascinating, but the physical work at the bench can be equally unexciting (that’s when you turn on your podcasts or audiobooks when you’re just pipetting for hours).

Am I against having a story in the lab? No, but it would use it more as a backdrop for something else.

So, maybe you can use the benchwork as background to more character-driven plot, but say you still really want that vaccine-development plot! Well, I would say to focus on the first couple of human trials.

Yep, you heard me! Before anyone can distribute vaccines to the general population, vaccines have to go through numerous trials, first on animals (that particular topic will be for another blog post) and then on small groups of human volunteers. Keyword: volunteers. No one is forcing them to take the vaccine (although if you want to explore someone being forced to go into the trails, that would be an interesting take as well).

It is during these trials that issues that did not arise during previous steps. And characters would not initially know if they received the placebo dose or not. And are they actually protected even if they get the real vaccine? And is it a lifetime protection, or a short-lived protection? The suspense!

5) I want the vaccine to be a point of contention

I mean…

Looks around at current pandemic

Hard not to use the vaccine like this. Who gets the vaccine first is dependent on power and privilege, let’s be perfectly honest. So that draws very finite lines about the power system in your world. And then there’s the way politicians use and present the vaccine as a tool for their rhetoric, which then draws the lines for your political systems. And that’s not even touching on what groups within your fictional culture believe it will work or is a “hoax by the government.” Just on a basic worldbuilding level, having the vaccine be a topic of discourse is a handy tool!

6) I want to use the vaccine as a MacGuffin.

(For those unfamiliar: MacGuffins are items/people of worth in your story that are usually passed around and much of the plot is centered around getting the MacGuffin from point A to B)

Gotta be honest… the more I think about this, the more I think this may be one of my favorite ways of using vaccines. Here me out:

If we use real life as an example, we can see that distribution is one of the major (if not THE major) problems with COVID-19 vaccines. Some vaccines are only stable at different temperatures, there is a limited amount of a dose at any given time, and once you open a dose, the clock starts ticking down for when you have to administer that vaccine. And then once they get to a distribution center, the center also has to be extremely organized so that folks can receive their dose. All of that combined makes distributing the vaccines a tactical game, in a sense. And that’s just in America: that whole process becomes even more complicated when you throw in maybe distribution in countries without the same kind of infrastructure, or with populations that do not trust western-derived medications (and rightfully so. Western medicine/science is not without a shady history folks. More on that in a whole other post for ethics in science).

Again, I would look at the stories concerning the Coronavirus for current, real-life examples. And that’s taking into account current, modern day possibilities of vaccine transport! Think of all of the ways transport could be complicated in a world without that access to technology, or even a fantasy world! And if you’re using a Star Wars inspired Sci-Fi setting, these issues could still be there! Maybe due to politics, a federation is trying to limit the amount of vaccines going into a star sector. The protagonists of your story may be trying to smuggle in the vaccines and there’s a time limit due to issues keeping the vaccine cold/stable enough on their ship. And since the vaccine doesn’t give lifelong immunity, this group of characters has to smuggle in vaccines or vaccine boosts regularly! The coolest smuggling novel!

How I see it, vaccines are already MacGuffins in real life, it makes sense that the best use of it (in my opinion) in your stories would be as a MacGuffin as well!

The Takeaway?

The science of vaccines on a molecular level is beyond fascinating, and I could talk about it all day. That does not necessarily mean that the science at the molecular level should be the only thing driving your story. It’s far more important to have characters interactions with the vaccine drive the story than the vaccine itself (training your immune system is kinda boring*; think of how exciting your last flu shot was, or even your COVID-19 shot if you’ve gotten it. Sure, you felt crappy for a few days, but would a character just feeling flu symptoms drive a novel?)

Anyhow, that’s all that I have for today! Working on the next post (I have heard more whispers of wanting more Worldbuilding posts like my mermaid post!) and excited to get back (again) into blogging!

Note: *Unless you’re personifying your cells, like the anime “Cells at Work” or the movie “Osmosis Bones”.