How does the COVID-19 vaccine work, and is it safe?
A Q&A with Dr. Corey Fish
You may have heard that the COVID-19 vaccines are a “new type of vaccine” - mRNA vaccines. But what does that mean? What’s new about these vaccines, and how do they protect our bodies from the SARS-CoV-2 virus? Dr. Corey Fish, CMO and a pediatrician at Brave Care, explains the science and answers your questions.
How most vaccines build immunity and protect you from disease
Up until now, vaccines have contained either a weakened or inactivated version of a particular disease, or a portion of the disease which tricks your body into developing an immune response without actually making you sick. For example, the chicken pox vaccine contains an extremely weak version of the varicella virus. By contrast, the pertussis vaccine contains purified pieces of the disease, rather than the whole germ that has been weakened or inactivated. These weak or incomplete versions of disease don’t make your body sick, but provide enough foreign disease material to trigger your immune system into developing antibodies against the disease. This allows your immune cells to recognize and fight full-strength diseases before they make you sick. Let's just take a moment to recognize how amazing that is.
The COVID-19 vaccines are a “new type” of vaccine
The new COVID vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are mRNA vaccines. What is an mRNA vaccine? Within our body’s cells, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) tells our cells how to build proteins (hence the “messenger” label). The messenger RNA in the new vaccines gives our cells the information to build a harmless piece of the SARS-CoV-2 virus called the “spike protein.”
How does the new mRNA virus protect you from COVID-19?
Once the mRNA vaccine enters your body, it instructs a few of your cells to make the COVID spike protein. Your immune cells recognize that the spike protein isn’t supposed to be there, and begin developing antibodies to protect you from it. If you’re exposed to the real SARS-CoV-2 virus, your immune system can immediately recognize the spike protein and use the antibodies developed during your vaccination to keep you from getting sick.
What happens to the mRNA from the COVID vaccine?
After the mRNA delivers the instructions to make the spike protein, your cells naturally break down the mRNA and dispose of it. In other words, they shoot the messenger.
Is the science behind mRNA vaccines new or untested?
No, mRNA vaccines have been studied for decades and are currently being studied for diseases like the flu and Zika. Further, this science is similar to gene therapy technology that has been studied for decades and is currently approved for a variety of illnesses, such as specific types of cancer. This technology is also being studied as a potential cure for type I diabetes. The difference is that in gene therapy, the goal is to insert permanent DNA into cells to replace segments that are damaged or missing and unable to make necessary proteins that people with certain illnesses need. With mRNA vaccines, the genetic “instructions” to build the viral protein are not permanent.
Why an mRNA vaccine and not one with an inactivated or weakened virus?
There are two compelling reasons for an mRNA vaccine in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, there’s evidence that mRNA vaccines produce a stronger type of immunity than traditional vaccines, which was essential for a virus that’s both highly contagious and deadly. Second, high-quality RNA can be manufactured in large amounts in lab settings. This enabled vaccine companies to formulate many doses quickly, and hopefully save more lives in the process.
Will children need more shots doses than adults?
While we won’t know for certain until the pediatric vaccine trials are done, there’s no indication so far that kiddos will need more doses.
I’ve heard about a more contagious strain of the virus? Should I be worried?
You may have heard about the more contagious U.K. variant or strain of the COVID virus. There are more contagious mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus infecting folks worldwide. We did a whole Q&A, including how it affects kids, here.
Where do we get our data from?
At Brave Care, we get our data about COVID-19 and the vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and primary scientific or medical journals.
What about vaccine scams?
You may have heard about vaccine scams, where bad actors are sending emails that look like they’re from the FDA or CDC. Or phone calls asking you to “get on the list” for the vaccine. These scams are trying to capture your personal information or get you to download bad files. To avoid these scams, the best thing you can do is make sure your contact information is up to date with your primary care provider. Vaccines are being rolled out in a specific way, often with federal oversight, and your primary care provider will be in touch to schedule you. Remember if a vaccine email or phone call sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
I’m pregnant can I / should I get the vaccine?
There’s limited data on covid vaccine and pregnancy. Neither Moderna nor Pfizer enrolled pregnant women in their studies. Because of that, the WHO is currently recommending against the vaccine at the time of this writing "except in those at high risk of exposure or having a severe case." The WHO does not recommend pregnancy testing before receiving the vaccine, nor does it recommend delaying pregnancy following vaccination.
When can children get the vaccine?
As of right now, we don't know - the research is ongoing. Brave Care hopes to be a resource for safe vaccine administration when the time comes, and we stay on top of the situation daily. Rest assured, when the times comes for children to safely get the COVID vaccine, we'll make sure it's widely known.
Have more questions about the COVID-19 vaccine or still wondering if it’s the right choice for your family? Check out our COVID vaccine Q&A with Dr. Z and watch the video of CMO Dr. Corey Fish getting his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.