Reverse Engineering the source code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine – Articles

What is RNA?

RNA is the volatile ‘working memoryʼ version of DNA. DNA is like the flash drive storage of biology. DNA is very durable, internally redundant and very reliable. But much like computers do not execute code directly from a flash drive, before something happens, code gets copied to a faster, more versatile yet far more fragile system.

For computers, this is RAM, for biology it is RNA. The resemblance is striking. Unlike flash memory, RAM degrades very quickly unless lovingly tended to. The reason the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine must be stored in the deepest of deep freezers is the same: RNA is a fragile flower.

Each RNA character weighs on the order of 0.53·10−21 grams, meaning there are around 6·1016 characters in a single 30 microgram vaccine dose. Expressed in bytes, this is around 14 petabytes, although it must be said this consists of around 13,000 billion repetitions of the same 4284 characters. The actual informational content of the vaccine is just over a kilobyte. SARS-CoV-2 itself weighs in at around 7.5 kilobytes.

Reverse Engineering the source code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine – Articles

What is DNA?

DNA is a digital code. Unlike computers, which use 0 and 1, life uses A, C, G and U/T (the ‘nucleotidesʼ, ‘nucleosidesʼ or ‘basesʼ).

In computers we store the 0 and 1 as the presence or absence of a charge, or as a current, as a magnetic transition, or as a voltage, or as a modulation of a signal, or as a change in reflectivity. Or in short, the 0 and 1 are not some kind of abstract concept – they live as electrons and in many other physical embodiments.

Reverse Engineering the source code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine – Articles

In nature, A, C, G and U/T are molecules, stored as chains in DNA (or RNA).

In computers, we group 8 bits into a byte, and the byte is the typical unit of data being processed.

Nature groups 3 nucleotides into a codon, and this codon is the typical unit of processing. A codon contains 6 bits of information (2 bits per DNA character, 3 characters = 6 bits. This means 26 = 64 different codon values).

Pretty digital so far. When in doubt, head to the WHO document with the digital code to see for yourself.

So what does that code do?

Reverse Engineering the source code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine – Articles

The idea of a vaccine is to teach our immune system how to fight a pathogen, without us actually getting ill. Historically this has been done by injecting a weakened or incapacitated (attenuated) virus, plus an ‘adjuvantʼ to scare our immune system into action. This was a decidedly analogue technique involving billions of eggs (or insects). It also required a lot of luck and loads of time. Sometimes a different (unrelated) virus was also used.

An mRNA vaccine achieves the same thing (‘educate our immune systemʼ) but in a laser like way. And I mean this in both senses – very narrow but also very powerful.

So here is how it works. The injection contains volatile genetic material that describes the famous SARS-CoV-2 ‘Spikeʼ protein. Through clever chemical means, the vaccine manages to get this genetic material into some of our cells.

These then dutifully start producing SARS-CoV-2 Spike proteins in large enough quantities that our immune system springs into action. Confronted with Spike proteins, and (importantly) tell-tale signs that cells have been taken over, our immune system develops a powerful response against multiple aspects of the Spike protein AND the production process.

And this is what gets us to the 95% efficient vaccine.


If you are interested in learning more about how our body’s immune system works and what the vaccines do with it OR to it: