RNA and Other Things

Academic Dean Howard G. Hunter

When Dr. Mike Cotugno explained to me how the Moderna vaccine works, my eyes glazed over, a humanist brain unable to grasp the intricacies of the science that will be our deliverance. As an ex-Marine Dr. Mike is waging war against COVID on a number of fronts conducting studies on vaccines through an outfit called Benchmark Research. And like a good teacher he inspired me to do my homework, and my crude understanding is thus: the acid RNA, which comprises the basic material of the major vaccines in the trial is akin to the Greek god Hermes the messenger. Ribonucleic acid carries instructions to cells on how to produce proteins, and in the case of a vaccine, the RNA directs cells to fabricate a protein found on the surface of COVID 19. The body reacts by going into protection mode, producing antibodies to fight what it perceives as an invasive substance. Immunity results from what is essentially a parlor trick played on the body.

The trial is called a “double-blind” study since neither participant nor distributer knows whether a placebo or genuine vaccine is administered. Through an app on their phone participants answer questions that allow the stat wonks at the drug companies to crunch the numbers to measure the effectiveness of the vaccine. In my own case, I felt no ill effects from the first shot and readily concluded I was among those who took a placebo. But four weeks later after the second dose, I woke the next morning with fever, chills, and aches. In eight hours, all symptoms mysteriously vanished and by late afternoon I felt in top form. One tries to avoid the fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation, but if that was a placebo, it was certainly an interesting one.
 
There is always the notion that taking part in a medical study is interesting and for the curious, even fun, playing out Sartre’s dictum to be engagé. I wish I could ascribe my own motive to participate as disinterested and noble (like my colleagues Courtney Couvillon and Shannon Barilleaux who did the Pfizer study), but if the truth be known, it was simply a matter of my running out of patience. That I am wanting in that virtue hardly squares with my profession, but we all suffer our contradictions and perhaps our flaws can work for us when that rare opportunity presents itself.
 
Nevertheless, even with the vaccine cavalry coming in 2021, the existential act of putting one foot in front of the other in the midst of a global pandemic is at best trying; silver linings can be elusive. In our own place at 300 Park Road, it is fair to say that our students are frustrated and the faculty exhausted. But we have learned some things. The fact that we are up and running tells us that if properly observed, protocols do work. And we have also learned to organically transform space.
 
For too long we have treated our campus like a jewel in the crown to be protected, rather than a space we can utilize for educating. Though a modern miracle, air conditioning isolates and contributes to the notion that the classroom is for teaching, while the campus is for walking through, admiring on a nice day, and holding special events. But with health as our primary concern, we followed the research and erected five tents.  On any given day, all tents, and weather permitting all courtyards, are in full academic/artistic sway. This is not mere utilitarianism — COVID has reminded us how the campus is essential to our being and breaking down the duality between campus and classroom brings us right back to 1929.
 
A vaccine is coming (it bears repeating). That both Moderna and Pfizer have registered an efficacy rate of over 90 percent in the last stage of the trial gives us reason to be sanguine about 2021 (although my money is on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine which will only require one dose). Yet with universal yelps and cries for getting back to normal, there is the question of what will normal look like? I have to believe that our own community will not go back to normal — we will be more health-conscious as well as more aware of the space we have to educate. Not a bad thing either of those; not a bad thing indeed.
 
 
 
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300 Park Road, Metairie, LA 70005 (504) 837-5204
Established in 1929, Metairie Park Country Day School is a coed private school for New Orleans area students in early childhood through Grade 12. From the elementary grades through upper school, the care and cultivation of each child comes to life in our exciting academic program, creative arts, and competitive athletic offerings.

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