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Demystifying the mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines

How does this vaccine work?

The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have been approved for emergency use by the FDA. These vaccines, while maintaining the same goal as traditional vaccines, utilize new biotechnology. Messenger RNA (mRNA) provides the instructions to the cell to create the proteins in our bodies. In the vaccine, the mRNA is encapsulated in bubble made of fats (lipids) which works as a vehicle to bring the mRNA into the cell. Once inside the cell, the mRNA will meet a ribosome, which is like a factory worker who uses the mRNA instructions to create the protein. It is important to note that the mRNA will not get near the nucleus, which is the part of the cell that holds the DNA. Therefore, we know that this vaccine cannot and will not affect your DNA. In these vaccines, the mRNA provides the instructions for the spike protein found on the coronavirus. Once the spike protein is created, the cell will display the protein on the cell surface. This process teaches the immune system what the virus looks like. Once the immune system has been educated, it will attack the virus if a person becomes infected. This is how the vaccine can reduce the severity of an infection or prevent an infection all together.

What are the ingredients?

The ingredients of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are simple and rather standard.

· mRNA: The instructions for the spike protein.

· Fats (lipids): The transport vehicle that gets the mRNA into the cell.

· Salts and sugar or Buffers: Maintain vaccine stability.

Pfizer-BioNTech fact sheet:

How did they create this science so fast?

The concept of mRNA vaccine technology dates back 30 years. This design simplifies the vaccine but had to overcome many obstacles in its creation. The obstacles were mainly due to the lack of technology available to meet certain steps. For example, technology had to be developed that would provide the exact structure of a virus. Consider the time it took to develop the cell phones we use today. While each new update on the iPhone seems like it only took a year to develop, each advancement likely took years of work behind the scenes. 30 years of meticulous research is what allowed the scientists with Moderna and Pfzier-BioNTech to bring this biotechnology into use during the pandemic.

How did this get approved so fast?

On May 15, 2020 the White House announced a program called Operation Warp Speed. This program’s aim was to accelerate the development, production, and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The goal was to create a safe and effective vaccine to be available in mass quantities by January 2021. By using the resources of the federal government and the U.S. private sector, vaccines are now available. Many people may feel uneasy about the speed of this process. It is important to understand that the production of these vaccines did not cut corners, but rather cut the red tape that slows that process.

Why hasn’t this vaccine been tested on pregnant women?

There has been a lot of concern regarding the safety of this vaccine for pregnant women. Some are concerned because this vaccine was not formally tested on pregnant women in clinical trials. However, pregnant women are excluded from participation in clinical research with a few exceptions*. For example, acetaminophen is a widely used drug used during pregnancy. There is no evidence of bad effects from the drug, but there is also limited clinical trial data to prove its safety. This drug has been widely used by pregnant women, and very few adverse events have been documented. Because of this, acetaminophen is considered safe during pregnancy. Therefore, it’s important to realize that it’s not new for pregnant women not to be in clinical trials.

Additionally, there is not yet any data on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for lactating women. According to the CDC, there is currently no belief that the mRNA vaccines pose a risk to breastfeeding infants.

*According to Subpart B of the Federal Regulations on Clinical Trials

These vaccines have not been approved for use in children aged 0-15. It is important to note that the immune system of a child is very different from that of an adult. The immune response will be different at different ages. Clinical trials need to prove the safety and efficiency of the vaccine use in children. After this, the vaccine must be reviewed by the FDA before approval. It is likely that children will be the last group to receive the vaccine, by which time we will have a better understanding of its effects.

Do people who’ve had COVID-19 need the vaccine?

As per the CDC, it is recommended that you get the vaccine, even if you’ve already had COVID-19. This is because of the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that you can get re-infected. Additionally, the immunity one gets from an infection can vary. This natural immunity may not be protective enough, and early evidence shows it may not be lasting immunity. Having both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity can better protect you from infection.

Why get it?

So, if given the opportunity, should you get the vaccine? At this point, the vaccine is entirely a personal decision. Dr. Simony and some of his staff have been able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For some, the vaccines are a glimmer of hope in this pandemic. The vaccine could reduce the odds of getting infected or reduce the severity of an infection. The more we slow this virus down, the closer we get to normalcy. The sooner we get back to normalcy, the sooner we get children back to the mode of education they deserve.

Written by: Cheyenne Lockwood, B.Sc., Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Reviewed by: Dr. James Simony

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