COVID-19 vaccines

12/11/20
Matt Kodsi, MD, Ph.D, Vice President of Medical Affairs

Matt Kodsi, MD, Ph.D, Vice President of Medical Affairs

mRNA vaccines take advantage of the process that cells use to make proteins in order to trigger an immune response and build immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In contrast, most vaccines use weakened or inactivated versions or components of the disease-causing pathogen to stimulate the body’s immune response to create antibodies.

mRNA vaccines have strands of genetic material called mRNA inside a special coating. That coating protects the mRNA from enzymes in the body that would otherwise break it down. It also helps the mRNA enter the muscle cells near the vaccination site. mRNA can most easily be described as instructions for the cell on how to make a piece of the “spike protein” that is unique to SARS-CoV-2. Since only part of the protein is made, it does not do any harm to the person vaccinated but it is antigenic. After the piece of the spike protein is made, the cell breaks down the mRNA strand and disposes of them using enzymes in the cell. It is important to note that the mRNA strand never enters the cell’s nucleus or affects genetic material. This information helps counter misinformation about how mRNA vaccines alter or modify someone’s genetic makeup. Once displayed on the cell surface, the protein or antigen causes the immune system to begin producing antibodies and activating T-cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection. These antibodies are specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which means the immune system is primed to protect against future infection.

COVID-19 mRNA vaccines will go through the same rigorous safety assessment as all vaccines before they are authorized or approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This includes large clinical trials and data review by a safety monitoring board. 

Normally vaccines can take years to develop as drugs make their way through development, clinical trials, FDA approval, and then manufacturing. Due to the public health crisis numerous companies and governments worked together to develop and isolate vaccine targets which shortened the development phase. Additionally, due to government funding the manufacturing process has been ongoing in hopes that these vaccines would prove effective. In normal situations this would be huge financial risk and would not happen, but due to government funding this “risk” was undertaken in hopes of these vaccines being effective and immediately released to the market. This is the primary reason why the vaccines will reach patients much quicker that under normal circumstances. 

Yes! The data from both Pfizer and Moderna have resulted in 94-95% efficacy. 

No, the vaccines will cause your own cells to make a protein (spike protein) that will then be recognized by your immune system to mount an immune response and provide immunity to COVID-19. 

No, only those individuals who will commit to both doses will be offered the vaccine. 

Yes. At this time it is unknown if previous COVID-19 infection will offer comparable immunity as has been demonstrated with the vaccines. You may get the vaccine if you are not actively sick with a severe illness and fever. 

At this time we don’t know. However, the vaccines target the “spike protein” of the coronavirus so we expect that unless a significant mutation occurs, we are hopeful for long-term immunity but we simply do not know at this time. 

The data suggests that the vaccines are well tolerated with the most common side effects being injection site pain, fatigue, headache, myalgia, and less commonly fever/chills. It appears that the incidence of these mild side effects are more common than we normally observe for flu vaccines, but these are typically limited to 12-24 hour duration. 

The vaccine is administered as an intramuscular injection in the deltoid muscle. The vaccine will be thawed and diluted with room temperature diluent prior to administration. 

The vaccines have not been studied in pregnancy and they will not be indicated for this population.

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