UPDATE: The FDA authorized a third COVID-19 vaccine in late February.
So far, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized two COVID-19 vaccines — the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine — which are both messenger ribonucleic acid or mRNA vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes these mRNA vaccines as containing instructions for your cells on how to make a piece of the “spike protein” that is unique to COVID-19. That protein triggers an immune response inside our bodies, producing antibodies and activating T-cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection. This protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies. The CDC points out that mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19.
NDWorks asked Dr. Ben Garman, medical director at the Notre Dame Wellness Center, to explain how mRNA vaccines work.
“An mRNA vaccine works a little differently than most other vaccines that are available to us, such as a more traditional mechanism of vaccination for the measles or the flu or chickenpox. Typically, those either use a weakened, killed or a picked-apart copy of the virus that won’t normally cause you to contract disease, but it's similar enough to the real virus or bacteria that your body mounts an immune response to the real version.
“The way these new mRNA vaccines work is the mRNA molecule is surrounded by a lipid shell or kind of a chunk of fat, and all that chunk of fat does is allow that mRNA molecule to enter your cells, otherwise mRNA can't get past the membrane. And once it's there, your body reads that mRNA and uses its natural machinery to produce a specific protein that would naturally be on the virus that you are vaccinating against — in this case, the spike protein, which a lot of people have probably heard of for COVID. Your body naturally recognizes that spike protein, after your cell makes it, as something bad. And it makes a bunch of immune responses to that spike protein without you ever having to have the virus inside your body ...
“...mRNA vaccines have a lot of benefits compared to traditional mechanisms. One of those benefits (to scientists and doctors) is that all you need to start working on (the vaccine) is the genetic code of the virus. And that genetic code was known by December of 2019. And so (scientists and doctors) could start producing potential variations of this vaccine even before 2020 started, and they did. Moderna, specifically, is a company founded to make mRNA vaccines, and so this is all they do. This is the first commercial mRNA vaccine, but it's not the first mRNA vaccine that they've ever tried or have done research on. It's still a relatively new form of technology, but this is not the first. This is just the first one that is for commercial use.”
Dr. Garman points out that mRNA vaccines will not affect your DNA.
“It's not going to change your genetic material. It's just that temporary blueprint. And then using the natural mechanisms of your body, you then produce a specific protein that's normally on the virus,” he said.
Each state has its own plan for deciding which groups of people will be vaccinated first. Visit HERE.nd.edu for Indiana and Michigan vaccination eligibility details.