What You Need to Know About mRNA Vaccines

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Coronavirus or sars-cov-2 virus cell with messenger RNA or mRNA and syringe on blue background.

The development of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine (Pfizer and Moderna) will go down in history books. Dr. Stephen Rinderknecht, chair of the UnityPoint Clinic Vaccine Oversight Committee, says he didn’t think the creation of a vaccine could happen in less than a year’s time. But it did – and no safety corners were cut. He gives us four fast facts about the first COVID-19 vaccines.

What are mRNA Vaccines? 

mRNA vaccines are a new vaccine technology first approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fight the spread of COVID-19. These vaccines do not use a weakened virus, like many other vaccines. mRNA vaccines work by teaching your body to create a protein that’ll protect you from a dangerous illness – like COVID-19.

Understanding mRNA Vaccines

1. mRNA vaccines are new, but the technology is not. 

Researchers have been studying mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccines for decades. Dr. Rinderknecht says two closely related coronavirus diseases – SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012 – brought mRNA vaccine development to where it is today.

“Vaccines for those previous coronavirus diseases didn’t get finished, because the diseases were contained and never became a world-wide threat – unlike COVID-19. mRNA vaccines have also been studied for the prevention of influenza, Zika, rabies and cytomegalovirus,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

2. mRNA vaccines can be created quickly. 

“The reason we saw the mRNA platform first in the fight against COVID-19 is because of the speed with which it can be manufactured. It has a much more simple, fast and inexpensive creation process,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Traditionally, vaccines work by growing a large amount of a virus, then weakening it or extracting a piece, which can take a lot of time. Since mRNA vaccines don’t use a weakened virus, they can be created more quickly. Everything needed for an mRNA vaccine can be created in a laboratory.

Dr. Rinderknecht adds that it also helped to have funding from the government for COVID-19 vaccines. Financing can be a major obstacle for vaccine development.

3. mRNA vaccines do NOT alter your DNA. 

“DNA, which contains our unique genetic code, is in the nucleus of every living cell in our body. It has two long strands of nucleotides linked together like a ladder twisted into a spiral. mRNA is a single-strand messenger molecule that transfers a copy of a section of DNA and takes it (like a messenger) to the structures in our cells that build the protein. At the very basic level, proteins give your cells what’s needed for survival," Dr. Rinderknecht says.

The mRNA vaccines work through this same process. However, the mRNA is created in a laboratory. 

“Once inside the cell, the mRNA tells the cell to make part of a new protein, which starts an immune response. Your body begins to make antibodies to help protect you from future COVID-19 infection. After the message is transferred, the cell gets rid of the mRNA. mRNA can’t enter the nucleus of the cell (where DNA is) and does not alter your DNA in any way,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Think of an mRNA vaccine like an alert signal to your immune system, giving instructions on which protein to create for protection.

4. Viral vector vaccines emerged after mRNA vaccines.

After the two COVID-19 mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) became available, another vaccine, using different technology, received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA. Johnson and Johnson/Janssen released the first COVID-19 viral vector vaccine. Unlike the mRNA vaccines, viral vector vaccines do use a weakened part of a virus. (It’s a different virus than the one that causes COVID-19). The virus contains part of the genetic material from the COVID-19 virus. 

“The carrier virus is injected as a vaccine, and it invades our cells. No disease occurs, but the genetic material instructs our cells to make the desired protein. Then, the immune system begins its work,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

Besides the COVID-19 vaccine, there is one relatively recent licensed viral vector vaccine – Ervebo. It’s a vaccine for protection against Ebola.

Bottom Line – COVID-19 Vaccines are Safe 

It’s normal to have different methods and manufacturers for vaccines. For example, there are a variety of flu vaccines on the market. You’re just hearing more details about the COVID-19 vaccines since we are in the midst of a pandemic.

“These COVID-19 vaccines have received the same testing and oversight of safety and efficacy as any other vaccine. The vaccine happened very quickly because of previous technologies developed, the financial backing of governments and significant global cooperation due to the wide-spread devastation of the pandemic. The vaccines are remarkably effective with tolerable side effects, so I’d encourage everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.

If you want more information, check out our COVID-19 vaccine page.