COVID-19 vaccine distribution has begun, and the vaccines hitting the market at the time of this posting are mRNA vaccines. Consumers have many questions about this new vaccine technology. Below are some of the common questions and answers. Any concerns specific to your health and your individual decisions should be discussed with your physician.
What is an mRNA vaccine?
RNA is found in the cells of all living organisms, and it carries instructions for DNA to synthesize proteins and create your genetic information. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is one specific type of RNA that tells the body which cells to build.
The University of Cambridge (2020) explains this type of vaccine works by introducing an mRNA sequence that is coded for a specific antigen into the body. Once this antigen is in the body and is recognized by the immune system, the immune system begins to build its defenses.
How does this technology differ from previous vaccine technology?
According to the CDC (2020), an mRNA vaccine teaches the body how to create proteins, or portions of proteins, to trigger an immune response. This is different from previous vaccine technology which introduces a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies to trigger an immune response. The CDC also provides a very detailed explanation of how the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 help the body fight COVID’s spike proteins.
There are other differences, too. According to the University of Cambridge (2020), mRNA vaccines are cheaper and faster to produce than other types of vaccines. This is because, as Langer explains, you do not need the time and resources to grow a virus or a protein. You simply inject the mRNA and let the body do the work (as cited in Trafton, 2020).
How new is this technology?
The COVID-19 vaccines are the first licensed mRNA vaccines, however the technology has been in the works for decades. Biochemist Katalin Karikó began developing the technology in the 1990s but ran into issues with the body’s immune response. Eventually, she and immunologist Dr. Drew Weissman worked out the immune response issues and began publishing research about the developments in 2005 (Garde and Saltzman, 2020).
mRNA vaccines have since been studied in Zika virus, rabies, and the flu, and cancer researchers have experimented with mRNA technology to target cancer cells (CDC, 2020).
Does this impact my body’s DNA?
The mRNA only carries directions to the DNA to create proteins; it doesn’t impact your DNA. Human cells break down and get rid of mRNA once they are finished following the directions to create the protein (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
Will I get sick after getting the vaccine?
You will not get sick with COVID after the vaccine, however you may develop side effects. These side effects are an immune response to the vaccine, so having them is an indication that the vaccine has effectively stimulated the body’s immune system and the process is working. This is true for any vaccine. According to Achenbach (2020), about half of everyone who receives the vaccine could experience mild side effects such as fever, headaches, fatigue, and injection site pain. A small number of people could have more moderate or severe side effects, but again, that is common with any vaccine.
Is it safe?
The U.S. FDA and an independent vaccine safety panel have determined the Pfizer vaccine and Moderna vaccine are safe, and the FDA has granted emergency use authorization (EUA) for the vaccines. More vaccines are expected to be approved for EUA in the coming months. According to the Mayo Clinic (2020), in order to be approved for EUA, the manufacturer must have followed at least half of the clinical trial participants for two months after the vaccine series was completed to see if there were any adverse reactions. If you want to learn more about the clinical trial process for these vaccines, check out my previous blog post Operation Warp Speed and COVID-19 Clinical Trials.
The University of Cambridge (2020) notes that in general, mRNA vaccines may be safer than traditional vaccines because they are not introducing an actual germ into your body; they are only introducing the instructions to fight a germ. The Mayo Clinic (2020) adds that neither Pfizer nor Moderna’s vaccine was created with animal or cell materials or preservatives; also, despite rumors, human fetal tissue was not used in vaccine development.
After receiving the vaccine, a small percentage of recipients did have severe allergic reactions which were quickly handled; however, many of those recipients already had a history of adverse allergic reactions to vaccines. The FDA does not recommend COVID vaccines be given to people with a history of severe allergic reactions to any of the components used to manufacture the vaccines (Silberner, 2020). The CDC has also issued guidance on how to handle these allergic reactions (Varela and Romero, 2020).
The FDA and the CDC will continue to monitor the safety of COVID-19 vaccines just as they continue to monitor the safety of all vaccines.
Will it be mandatory?
As of the time of this blog posting, there are no mandates for people to receive the COVID vaccine; however, employers are able to require the vaccine if they choose to require it. Elejalde-Ruiz (2020) explains that because COVID is such a public health crisis, employers could be able to require it as a business necessity. Employers may also be able to fire people who refuse to get vaccinated unless the employee has a disability or a strong religious belief that prevents them from obtaining the vaccine. So far, though, employers are figuring out how to strongly encourage the vaccine rather than requiring it.
When can I get it?
It depends on what patient category you fall into. The CDC has recommended a plan that prioritizes high risk individuals (frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities) before other groups. Ultimately, each state can determine how to distribute the vaccine in accordance with CDC guidelines (Silberner, 2020).