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A Brief Look At COVID-19 Vaccines And How They Work

Answering Common Questions About the COVID-19 Vaccines

What is a Vaccine?

A vaccine is a pharmacological agent that is used to prevent viral infection by strengthening the immune system. Unlike bacteria, which are treated with antibiotics, viruses are combated with vaccines, which contain the same elements (be it DNA, RNA, or another antigen) of the virus that it is designed to protect you against.

When presented to your immune system, viral contents create antibodies able to recognize the virus in the future and adequately mitigate infection. Unlike antibiotics and other pharmacological treatments that “treat” an infection or disease, vaccines seek to “prevent” infection from ever occurring.

Think of your body’s immune system as a police force. Vaccines work similarly to officers who research their databases or post wanted signs to apprehend a criminal. They seek to prevent further crimes from happening by letting citizens know who the “bad guy” (the virus) is, and what we should do if we encounter them. Since your new antibodies can recognize the virus, they act accordingly. Their efficacy can last for several decades and even your entire lifetime.

Much like a police force has case files or fingerprint databases for fighting crime, your body’s immune system has a memory and tools that fight infection.

The Ingredients That Make Up COVID-19 Vaccines

COVID-19 vaccines are being researched and produced by several companies within the United States and abroad. The most prominent are made by Pfizer and Moderna, both of which require two doses and share similar efficacies at reducing transmission (94-95%). The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, is lower at 72% effective, but it only requires one dose.

The active ingredients in both the Moderna and Pfizer versions of the COVID-19 vaccine are viral mRNA particles. The term mRNA stands for “Messenger Ribonucleic Acid,” and it is a component of DNA (the genetic code for making proteins) synthesis in a plethora of different organisms on this planet. The mRNA is grown “in-vitro,” which means that it is grown in a lab as opposed to “in-vivo,” or inside of something living.

Contrary to some reports and beliefs, these mRNA molecules DO NOT integrate into nor interfere with the recipient’s DNA.

Viral vectors are the active ingredients utilized in place of mRNA in the Johnson & Johnson version of the vaccine that will be available some time this year. These are harmless viruses that have viral particles inserted into them. Imagine the vector as a taxi for viral particles, which are spike proteins that are part of the exterior of the COVID-19 virus. Now, if COVID-19 were a car, the spike proteins would be its tires. They assist the actual live virus in entering our human cells.

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Remember though, when removed from the virus, viral vectors are completely useless on their own and only serve to help our body create antibodies and recognize COVID-19 if it’s encountered in the future.

Some inactive vaccine ingredients include lipids, salts, sugars, acids, and acid stabilizers, all of which play roles like assisting mRNA delivery or facilitating stabilization.

Does the Vaccine Contain a Live Virus? Is This Even Safe?!?

These are fair questions, as any patient has a right to know exactly how safe their vaccine is.

Do these vaccines contain a live virus? The straight answer is NO.

The mRNA particles are not living and cannot revert into the original virus and cause infection. Even though mRNA molecules are components of DNA replication, the molecules contained within do not have the ability to actively create viral DNA. Conversely, there are vaccines out there, such as those for seasonal influenza and MMRV, that are “live attenuated.” In a small percentage of patients, they can revert to the original virus.

This is NOT the case with the COVID-19 vaccine.

The spike protein contained within the viral vector vaccine is located on the exterior of the COVID-19 virus and in NO WAY has anything to do its replication, therefore it cannot revert to or create COVID-19.

Are the COVID-19 vaccines safe?

As with any vaccine, there are possible side effects. Some patients have reported common cold symptoms such as fatigue or fever for a small amount of time after receiving their vaccine. However, the vaccines are safe; they and have passed multiple rigorous trial phases with the FDA prior to clearance. It should be noted though that the immune system response is not instantaneous, and it may take several weeks for your body to develop sufficient antibodies to combat COVID-19. Continue to be vigilant and safe during this time because if you come into contact with the virus, you may develop the infection.

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