Reverse Engineering the Source Code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine

Last modified on December 27, 2020

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Welcome! On this submit, we’ll be taking a persona-by-character ogle at the
present code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine.

I've to thank the gargantuan strong of these who hung out previewing this
article for legibility and correctness. All errors dwell mine although,
however I'd are wanting to take heed to about them fleet at or

Now, these phrases would possibly perhaps nicely even be significantly jarring - the vaccine is a liquid that will get
injected in your arm. How can we sing about present code?

That is a correct quiz, so let’s originate off with just a little fragment of the very
present code of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, additionally known as
BNT162b2, additionally
known as Tozinameran also is called

First 500 characters of the BNT162b2 mRNA. Source: World Health Organization

First 500 characters of the BNT162b2 mRNA. Provide: World Smartly being Organization

The BNT162b mRNA vaccine has this digital code at its coronary coronary heart. It is 4284
characters extended, so it'd perhaps presumably perhaps nicely presumably slot in a bunch of tweets. On the very
beginning of the vaccine manufacturing job, anybody uploaded this code to a
DNA printer (sure), which then remodeled the bytes on disk to staunch DNA

A Codex DNA BioXp 3200 DNA printer

A Codex DNA BioXp 3200 DNA printer

Out of this type of machine come minute parts of DNA, which after reasonably a pair of
organic and chemical processing cease up as RNA (additional about which later) in
the vaccine vial. A 30 microgram dose appears to be like to mainly have 30
micrograms of RNA. As nicely, there may be a suave lipid (fatty) packaging
intention that will get the mRNA into our cells.

RNA is the unstable ‘working reminiscence’ model of DNA. DNA is luxuriate in the flash
drive storage of biology. DNA is extremely sturdy, internally redundant and
very professional. However grand luxuriate in computer systems cease not cease code straight from a
flash drive, sooner than one factor happens, code will get copied to a quicker,
additional versatile but a methods additional fragile intention.

For computer systems, that is RAM, for biology it's RNA. The resemblance is
inserting. Unlike flash reminiscence, RAM degrades very fleet until lovingly
tended to. The purpose the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine have to be saved in the
deepest of deep freezers is the an identical: RNA is a fragile flower.

Every RNA character weighs on the reveal of 0.53·10⁻²¹ grams, that potential
there are 6·10¹⁶ characters in a single 30 microgram vaccine dose.
Expressed in bytes, that is round 25 petabytes, regardless of the actuality that it have to be talked about
this comprises round 2000 billion repetitions of the an identical 4284
characters. The staunch informational reveal materials of the vaccine is right over a
kilobyte. SARS-CoV-2 itself weighs in at round 7.5 kilobytes.

The briefest bit of background

DNA is a digital code. Unlike computer systems, which make the most of Zero and 1, life makes make the most of of A, C, G
and U/T (the ‘nucleotides’, ‘nucleosides’ or ‘bases’).

In computer systems we retailer the Zero and 1 as the (ab)sence of a charge, or as a
most up to date, as a magnetic transition, or as a voltage, or as a modulation of a
sign, or as a commerce of reflexivity. Or briefly, the Zero and 1 aren't some
additional or a lot much less summary principle - they dwell as electrons and in varied varied bodily

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

In computer systems, we neighborhood eight bits right into a byte, and the byte is the common unit
of info being processed.

Nature groups Three nucleotides right into a codon, and this codon is the common unit
of processing. A codon comprises 6 bits of info (2 bits per DNA
character, Three characters=6 bits. This implies 2⁶=64 varied codon values).

Somewhat digital up to now. When uncertain, head to the WHO
with the
digital code to behold in your self.

Some further discovering out is available
- this hyperlink (‘What
is life’) would possibly perhaps nicely serve rep sense of the discount of this web page. Or, at the identical time as you occur to luxuriate in
video, I've two hours for you.

So what does that code DO?

The principle of a vaccine is to teach our immune intention simple methods to try towards a pathogen,
with out us mainly getting in unfortunate well being. Historically this has been completed by
injecting a weakened or incapacitated (attenuated) virus, plus an ‘adjuvant’
to awe our immune intention into scoot. This grew to become a decidedly analogue
method curious billions of eggs (or bugs). It additionally required loads
of honest correct fortune and tons of of time. In most circumstances a varied (unrelated) virus grew to become additionally

An mRNA vaccine achieves the an identical element (‘educate our immune intention’) however in
a laser luxuriate in potential. And I imply this in every senses - very slender however moreover
very nice.

So right here is the way it mainly works. The injection comprises unstable genetic material
that describes the smartly-known SARS-CoV-2 ‘Spike’ protein. By suave
chemical potential, the vaccine manages to rep this genetic material into some of
our cells.

These then dutifully originate producing SARS-CoV-2 Spike proteins in gargantuan
passable parts that our immune intention springs into scoot. Confronted
with Spike proteins, and (importantly) uncover-chronicle indicators that cells had been
taken over, our immune intention develops a sturdy response towards additional than one
elements of the Spike protein AND the manufacturing job.

And that is what will get us to the 95% environment wonderful vaccine.

The provision code!

Let’s originate at the very starting, a extraordinarily proper situation
to originate
. The WHO doc has this
purposeful file:

That is a kind of desk of contents. We’ll originate with the ‘cap’, mainly
depicted as just a little bit hat.

Worthy akin to it's potential you may perhaps nicely presumably additionally’t correct plonk opcodes in a file on a computer and rush it,
the organic working intention requires headers, has linkers and points
luxuriate in calling conventions.

The code of the vaccine begins with the subsequent two nucleotides:


It'd be when put next very grand to each DOS and Residence windows executable starting
with MZ
, or UNIX scripts beginning with
#!. In every life and
working methods, these two characters aren't completed in any potential. However
they determine to be there as a result of in any other case nothing happens.

The mRNA ‘cap’ has a name of
. For one, it marks code as coming
from the nucleus. In our case of route it doesn’t, our code comes from a
vaccination. However we don’t should uncover the cell that. The cap makes our code
ogle legit, which protects it from destruction.

The preliminary two GA nucleotides are additionally chemically slightly varied from
the discount of the RNA. On this sense, the GA has some out-of-band
signaling on it.

The “5-top untranslated scenario”

Some lingo right here. RNA molecules can most attention-grabbing be study in a single route.
Confusingly, the fragment the construct the discovering out begins known as the 5’ or
‘5-top’. The discovering out stops at the three’ or three-top cease.

Existence comprises proteins (or points made by proteins). And these proteins
are described in RNA. When RNA will get remodeled into proteins, that is known as

Here we now have the 5’ untranslated scenario (‘UTR’), so this bit would not cease up
in the protein:


Here we come throughout our first shock. The customary RNA characters are A, C, G
and U. U can be known as ’T’ in DNA. However right here we fetch a Ψ, what goes

That is doubtless one of many exceptionally suave bits about the vaccine. Our physique
runs a sturdy antivirus intention (“the distinctive one”). That's the purpose,
cells are terribly unenthusiastic about international RNA and take a look at out very robust to
execute it sooner than it does the relaxation.

That is significantly of a wretchedness for our vaccine - it needs to sneak previous our
immune intention. Over many years of experimentation, it grew to become found that if the
U in RNA is changed by a slightly modified molecule, our immune intention
loses passion. For staunch.

So in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, each U has been changed by
1-methyl-3’-pseudouridylyl, denoted by Ψ. The mainly suave bit is that
regardless of the actuality that this substitute Ψ placates (calms) our immune intention, it's
well-liked as a customary U by linked system of the cell.

In computer safety we additionally know this trick - it now and again is feasible to
transmit a slightly corrupted model of a message that confuses firewalls and
safety alternate recommendations, however that's nonetheless to be popular with the backend servers -
which is able to then rep hacked.

We are actually reaping the benefits of predominant scientific evaluation carried out
beforehand. The
of this Ψ method wanted to try towards to rep
work funded after which well-liked. We should all the time all be very grateful, and I'm sure
the Nobel prizes will approach in due

Many folks have requested, can also viruses additionally make the most of the Ψ resolution to beat our
immune methods? Briefly, that is extraordinarily not seemingly. Existence merely does
not have the tools to originate 1-methyl-3’-pseudouridylyl nucleotides.
Viruses rely upon the tools of life to breed themselves, and this
facility is completely not there. The mRNA vaccines fleet degrade in the
human physique, and there may be not any chance of the Ψ-modified RNA
replicating with the Ψ silent in there. “No, Basically, mRNA Vaccines Are No longer Going To Have an effect on Your

can be a correct study.

Okay, encourage to the 5’ UTR. What cease these 51 characters cease? As each factor in
nature, almost nothing has one particular attribute.

When our cells should translate RNA into proteins, that is completed the make the most of of a
machine known as the ribosome. The ribosome is luxuriate in a 3D printer for
proteins. It ingests a strand of RNA and per that it emits a string of
amino acids, which then fold right into a protein.

Provide: Wikipedia shopper Bensaccount

That is what we behold occurring above. The dim ribbon at the backside is RNA.
The ribbon displaying in the inexperienced bit is the protein being fashioned. The
points flying in and out are amino acids plus adaptors to rep them match on

This ribosome needs to bodily sit on the RNA strand for it to rep to
work. Once seated, it should originate forming proteins per further RNA it
ingests. From this, it's potential you may perhaps nicely presumably additionally think about that it should’t but study the system the construct
it lands on first. That is right one of many capabilities of the UTR: the
ribosome touchdown zone. The UTR affords ‘lead-in’.

As nicely to this, the UTR additionally comprises metadata: when should translation
occur? And how grand? For the vaccine, they took the most ‘correct now’ UTR
moreover they can fetch, taken from the alpha globin
This gene is known to robustly fabricate reasonably a pair of proteins. In earlier
years, scientists had already found methods to optimize this UTR even further
(per the WHO doc), so that is not reasonably the alpha globin UTR.
It is greater.

The S glycoprotein sign peptide

As infamous, the goal of the vaccine is to rep the cell to manufacture copious
parts of the Spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Up up to now, we now have largely
encountered metadata and “calling convention” stuff in the vaccine present
code. However now we enter the staunch viral protein territory.

We silent have one layer of metadata to go on the totally different hand. Once the ribosome (from the
beautiful animation above) has made a protein, that protein silent needs to go
someplace. That is encoded in the “S glycoprotein sign peptide (prolonged chief

The potential to behold that is that at the beginning of the protein there may be a kind
of deal with ticket - encoded as fragment of the protein itself. On this mutter
case, the sign peptide says that this protein should exit the cell by technique of the
“endoplasmic reticulum”. Even Indispensable individual Scamper lingo is not as esteem as this!

The “sign peptide” is not very extended, however after we ogle at the code, there
are variations between the viral and vaccine RNA:

(Blow their personal horns that for comparability capabilities, I've changed the esteem modified Ψ by a
customary RNA U)

           3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3   3
               !   !   !   !   ! ! ! !     !   !   !   !   !            

So what goes on? I have never accidentally listed the RNA in groups of 3
letters. Three RNA characters rep up a codon. And each codon encodes for a
mutter amino acid. The sign peptide in the vaccine comprises exactly
the an identical amino acids as in the virus itself.

So how come the RNA is varied?

There are 4³=64 varied codons, since there are Four RNA characters, and
there are three of them in a codon. Yet there are most attention-grabbing 20 varied
amino acids. This implies that additional than one codons encode for the an identical amino acid.

Existence makes make the most of of the subsequent virtually about common desk for mapping RNA codons to
amino acids:

The RNA codon table (Wikipedia)

The RNA codon desk (Wikipedia)

On this desk, we're ready to behold that the modifications in the vaccine (UUU ->
UUC) are all synonymous. The vaccine RNA code is varied, nevertheless the an identical
amino acids and the an identical protein come out.

If we ogle fastidiously, we behold that varied the modifications occur in the
third codon location, infamous with a ‘3’ above. And if we take a look at the common
codon desk, we behold that this third location certainly now and again would not topic
for which amino acid is produced.

So, the modifications are synonymous, however then why are they there? Having a ogle
fastidiously, we behold that each modifications besides one consequence in additional C and Gs.

So why would you cease that? As infamous above, our immune intention takes a terribly darkish
look of ‘exogenous’ RNA, RNA code coming from out of doorways the cell. To evade
detection, the ‘U’ in the RNA grew to become already changed by a Ψ.

Nonetheless, it appears to be like that RNA with a nearer
of Gs and Cs is
additionally transformed extra successfully into

And this has been accomplished in the vaccine RNA by changing many characters
with Gs and Cs wherever this grew to become potential.

I’m slightly about the one commerce that did not consequence in an
further C or G, the CCA -> CCU modification. If any individual is aware of the purpose,
please let me know! Blow their personal horns that I’m acutely aware that some codons are additional smartly-liked
than others in the human genome, however I also learn that this would now not
affect translation velocity a

The staunch Spike protein

The subsequent 3777 characters of the vaccine RNA are in an identical type ‘codon optimized’
so as to add reasonably a pair of C’s and G’s. Within the passion of scenario I obtained’t record all
the code right here, however we will zoom in on one exceptionally specific
bit. That is the bit that makes it work, the fragment that may mainly serve us
return to life as customary:

                  L   D   Ok   V   E   A   E   V   Q   I   D   R   L   I   T   G
          L   D   P   P   E   A   E   V   Q   I   D   R   L   I   T   G
           !     !!! !!        !   !       !   !   !   ! !              

Here we behold the customary synonymous RNA modifications. To illustrate, in the well-known
codon we behold that CUU is modified into CUG. This provides one other ‘G’ to the
vaccine, which all people is aware of helps beef up protein manufacturing. Both CUU
and CUG encode for the amino acid ‘L’ or Leucine, so nothing modified in the

After we overview the full Spike protein in the vaccine, all modifications are
synonymous luxuriate on this.. excluding two, and that is what we behold right here.

The third and fourth codons above describe staunch modifications. The Ok and V
amino acids there are every changed by ‘P’ or Proline. For ‘Ok’ this required
three modifications (‘!!!’) and for ‘V’ it required most attention-grabbing two (‘!!’).

It appears to be like that these two modifications beef up the vaccine effectivity

So what goes on right here? Whenever you ogle at a staunch SARS-CoV-2 particle, you
can behold the Spike protein as, neatly, a bunch of spikes:

SARS virus particles (Wikipedia)

SARS virus particles (Wikipedia)

The spikes are mounted on the virus physique (‘the nucleocapsid protein’). However
the element is, our vaccine is greater producing the spikes itself, and we’re
not mounting them on to any extent further or a lot much less virus physique.

It appears to be like that, unmodified, freestanding Spike proteins collapse right into a
varied building. If injected as a vaccine, this would possibly perhaps certainly trigger our
our bodies to manufacture immunity.. however most attention-grabbing towards the collapsed spike protein.

And the staunch SARS-CoV-2 reveals up with the spiky Spike. The vaccine would not
work very neatly if that is the case.

So what to forestall? In 2017 it became described how inserting a double Proline
substitution in precisely the excellent
would rep the
S proteins choose of their ‘pre-fusion’ configuration, even with out being fragment of
the full virus. This works as a result of Proline is a terribly inflexible amino acid. It
acts as a additional or a lot much less splint, stabilising the protein in the order we might wish to
exhibit to

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