How COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines Work

COVID-19 mRNA vaccine

Curious on how the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines work? Wondering about the science dehind these vaccines and if they are effective against developing wanted to spend some time going through and discussing the science behind the Pfizer/BioNTech, and the Moderna mRNA vaccines. It seems to be there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and people really that aren’t getting vaccinated may not really have the best understanding of how these vaccines work. So what I’m going to do now is kind of dive in, look at the research behind it, show you why it’s not “experimental”, and why this is actually probably the new wave of what vaccines are going to be doing. So let’s talk about the mRNA vaccines and how they work, and they’re really interesting as far as kind of the technology and science behind it. It’s not something that’s “new.” There has been mRNA vaccine research for about the last 20 years, mostly in the cancer field, but the research has really advanced with the onset of COVID-19.

The basic science is that the vaccine delivers a ” recipe card” or set of instructions to the cell on how to make a certain piece of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein. The spike protein is kind of the most recognizable part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and by being able to replicate the spike protein in our cells, our immune system is then able to build up antibodies before we’re actually infected with SARS-CoV-2 and develop COVID-19. So again, it’s kind of like an early warning system we’re putting out on kind of a most wanted poster, so people know what to look out for. That’s essentially how all vaccines work, but with the mRNA, it’s a little bit of a different technology that we’re using. So really what happens is that in the lab, they produce this mRNA recipe card for the spike protein, and it’s really then encapsulated or in circled in a pretty much a piece of fat, droplet of fat.

So a nanoparticle of a lipid that allows the mRNA to easily get taken up by the cell. Once it enters the cell, there’s a certain part of the cell that uses that mRNA to produce the spike protein. The spike proteins then get pushed out to the cell wall and antibodies from… Or the lymphocytes can then recognize the spike protein as being a foreign product, and develop the antibodies.

So once the mRNA is taken up by the cells, the cells can start reading this recipe, the mRNA, the messenger mRNA, and start building the spike protein of the virus. Again, the mRNA only contains a recipe for the spike protein, it doesn’t contain the whole SARS-CoV-2 virus. So it’s a much safer method for vaccination than using a vaccine that contains a weakened version of the virus that we’ve used in the past. These mRNA instructions for the spike protein are then read by a part of the cell called a ribosome,

Ribosomes and mRNA

These ribosomes translate that mRNA recipe into a protein. A good analogy is to think of the ribosomes as being a 3D printer. You send the instructions to the 3D printer, and it prints out this structure for you, and the ribosomes kind of the same way takes the mRNA and develop a protein, depending on what the recipe of the mRNA tells it to do. In this case, the vaccine is using a ribosome to print out a copy of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein then makes its way to the surface of the cell, where the lymphocytes and other immune system cells of the body can then recognize it and develop antibodies to bind to the spike proteins. These antibodies then tell the rest of the immune system, “Hey, here’s something that’s abnormal, here’s a foreign intruder.”

Whats in the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine?

One of the other questions I get is, “What actually is in the mRNA vaccines?” I think that’s one of the big concern o people who are slow to get vaccinated or haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, keep saying, “Well, this is new, what’s in it? Is it going to harm me?”

The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are actually pretty simple, and straightforward as far as ingredients.

There’s the messenger RNA, which again is just kind of the basic instructions, recipe card, for the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There are also lipid droplets that they use as the delivery system for the mRNA. The vaccine also consists of a couple of different types of salts, such as potassium chloride, and sodium chloride, as well as couple of other salts that are used to stabilize it, and sucrose, which essentially is sugar.

What’s NOT in the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine?

More importantly, what’s NOT in the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines? This is another concern with some people and understandably so,. If you don’t understand what’s in it, and more importantly, what’s not in these vaccines, then how can you make a good decision on whether to take it or not?

there are no additional proteins in these mRNA vaccines, and that’s important for people that have egg or gluten allergies. We see this egg allergy issue with people that can’t get the influenza vaccine because the influenza vaccine is grown or cultured in chicken eggs, and then cultured down to be delivered as the flu shot. So if you have an egg allergy, some people will actually have a pretty profound reaction to the influenza vaccine, that’s not the case with these mRNA vaccines.

Other people worry about thimerosal, which was used as an adjunct in some previous vaccines. There are no blood products, and also no fetal cell lines were used to produce these mRNA vaccines. I know that’s been a concern with other older vaccines out there, that people will be depending on what their religious beliefs are, don’t want to use vaccines that were developed from fetal cell lines.

Can the COVID-19 vaccine change my DNA?

The short answer to that is no, but let’s go into why that can’t happen. So mRNA is actually very different from DNA, as far as how it’s designed and how it’s structured.

In the human body, you can’t actually translate, or change, or transcribe mRNA back into DNA. We just don’t have the right enzyme to do that or the right protein called reverse transcriptase.

There are viruses out there, such as HIV that use reverse transcriptase. These are RNA viruses that use reverse transcriptase to ttake their own RNA and convert it to DNA. Also, the mRNA is located in the cytoplasm, which is a different part of the cell from the cell nucleus, where the DNA is actually located. The mRNA can’t come into the cell nucleus, and can’t use the (non-existent )reverse transcriptase to bind to and become part of your DNA.

The other reason why mRNA can’t bind with your DNA is that mRNA, also has a short lifespan. Most messenger RNA lasts for maybe several hours, sometimes up to a day or so. Think of mRNA like a biological version of Snapchat, where you send out the message, it only lasts for a certain amount of time, then it’s gone, and you can’t bring it on back.

Messenger RNA is like that too, and there’s actually kind of a “self-destruct button,” where the cells degrade the mRNA and chew it up to get rid of it once the mRNA is not needed anymore.

Whats the research on COVID-19 vaccines?

There are two big studies that were published back in December and February, so December of last year, and February of this year, both on the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna mRNA vaccines.

Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 mRNA vaccine Phase 3 study

So let’s go through and look at both of the studies. The first study was the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine study.

The Pfizer/BioNTech study had over 43,000 people split between the vaccine and the placebo groups. People got two injections, three weeks apart, and they received a 30 microgram dose if it was the vaccine versus the saline injection. This was a double-blinded study, so the people getting the injections didn’t know if they were getting the vaccine or if they’re getting the placebo. The people giving the injections also did not know if they were giving the volunteers the placebo or the vaccine, and they went forward and surveyed them as far as any type of side effects. The researchers then looked at which of the people in the study went on to develop COVID-19, and how severe their symptoms were. One of the endpoints they used was looking at COVID-19 infection seven days after, or seven days or more after the second dose, so 28 days after the first injection.

While they had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the vaccine group, they had 162 cases of confirmed COVID-19 in the placebo group, quite a big difference. As far as the severe cases of COVID-19, there was just one severe case in the vaccinated group with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine versus nine severe cases in the placebo group.

Moderna COVID-10 mRNA Vaccine Study

So what about Moderna? That’s the other mRNA vaccine that’s out there, what’s their research, at least their Phase 3 study that was required to get emergency FDA approval? Moderna published their results a couple of months later in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccine demonstrates similar effectiveness against the SARS-CoV-2 virus with a slightly smaller study of 30,000 patients split between the vaccine group and the placebo group, The Moderna vaccine was given in two doses and spread out over four weeks, or 28 days in between the first and the second dose.

Their endpoints were measuring how many people developed symptomatic COVID-19. In the vaccine group, only 11 people developed COVID-19 out of that over 15,000. In the placebo group (the people getting the saline injections and not the vaccine), there were 185 COVID-19 infections. As far as severe cases of COVID-19, all the severe cases of COVID-19 were in the placebo group, a total of 30 cases, and none in the vaccine group. There was one fatality in that placebo group and no fatalities in the vaccinated group.

The results show how effective these two vaccines are. What’s interesting is that these were kind of a shorter time trial as far as the length of time, but they’re continuing on the studies as well too. So it’s not that they just shut them down, said, “Okay, we did it. Two months, six months, we’re done.” They’re continuing to look at are there any adverse side effects, long-term issues with these mRNA vaccines. They’re continuing to kind of study that and follow these test subjects for two years looking for these side effects. So I think overall, I’d have to say that these COVID-19 vaccines, at least mRNA ones, seem to be fairly safe and very effective. Now, you can debate whether or not long-term, are we going to need booster shots? I’m actually going to talk about that in a different video because I think there’s more detail we need to go into about are booster shots needed? Who needs to get them?

You can discuss both sides of this because I think there are also some counterpoints that are valid as far as maybe you should hold off on booster shots for some healthier people?

Do the vaccines give better immunity than just having a native COVID-19 infection?

I think one of the issues I would say with that is at least with the vaccines we know specifically how much of a dose we’re giving, for the Pfizer/BioNTech it’s a 30 microgram dose that we’re giving. For the Madonna vaccine, we’re giving a 100 microgram dose, so we can really measure out what people’s immunologic response is going to be. If you get a COVID-19 infection “in the wild” meaning out in public, we don’t know how your body specifically is going to react to that COVID-19 infection because everyone’s viral load exposure going to be different, which can impact how they respond as far as developing antibodies. We just don’t know how long your immunity is going to last, and there are people who are having second COVID infections that have had COVID infections, six to nine months ago. Granted, there are also people who’ve had the vaccine, they’re getting COVID infections after the vaccine.

But at least what I’m seeing personally is that those people who have been vaccinated, have much, much milder cases of COVID-19. And that is I think the take-home with this issue, that these vaccines significantly decrease the risk of developing severe COVID-19, of ending up in the hospital, of ending up in the intensive care unit, of ending up intubated, and more importantly, ending up dying from COVID-19.

Are you a parent concerned about the Delta variant and your child? Read our blog post about it here.

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