What are the different types of COVID-19 vaccines, how do they work and are they safe?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways, bringing with it loss of  livelihoods and even loved ones. However, hope is not lost: COVID-19 vaccines in development hold promise for the future as vaccines are our best path forward to a return to pre-pandemic life.

The COVID-19 vaccines are the most efficient way we can protect ourselves against the virus. This is because, simply put: Vaccines work. But how do vaccines work, and how were these specific vaccines developed, tested and approved for use? The answer has more to do with the advancements of modern medicine and science than the pandemic alone.

Scientists began thinking about vaccine development as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Existing medical technology used to create other vaccines was immediately applied to the COVID-19 vaccines developed by companies Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. This included mRNA and adenovirus vector technology.

mRNA Vaccines

While COVID-19 vaccines are “new,” this is only because the COVID-19 virus is new, or novel. The mRNA vaccine development process has been in the works for years – long before COVID-19 came along. Think of mRNA vaccines like instructions the body reads to understand how to combat a virus.

Like most vaccines, an mRNA vaccine is given by an injection in the upper arm muscle. Once the vaccine enters the immune cells and delivers the instructions, the cells use them to make a spike protein. The COVID-19 vaccines instruct cells to produce the same protein commonly found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

After the protein is developed, cells break down the instructions and get rid of them. The cells display the protein on their surface, which triggers the immune system to see that the protein is out of place. At this point, the immune system responds by building antibodies. 

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines.

Adenovirus Vector

An adenovirus vector vaccine is also given through a shot to the upper arm. This type of vaccine uses a harmless cold virus to deliver a gene that carries the blueprint for the spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

A cold virus is similar to a fake virus, acting like a real virus in every way but posing no harm. After injection, the harmless virus enters the cells, which then follows genetic instructions to make a copy of the spike protein. 

The immune system then uses the harmless virus copies to recognize and respond to the real thing – in this case, live COVID-19 cells. Just like with the mRNA vaccines, adenovirus vector vaccines train the body to learn how to protect itself against infection.

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine uses an adenovirus vector.

Are the Vaccines Safe to Get?

There have been many rumors about whether the COVID-19 vaccines are safe to get, causing some people to worry and question how quickly these vaccines were developed and approved. However, there is no cause for alarm or doubt: Each COVID-19 vaccine was approved through a process called “Emergency Use Authorization (EUA.)” 

EUA is a way to support the availability and use of medical therapies during a public health emergency. In regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, this applies to the vaccine approval time. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can approve an EUA request from a manufacturer to treat or prevent serious and/or life-threatening diseases or conditions when there are no other alternatives to treat/prevent the illness. 

To grant an EUA, the FDA needs to decide that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks. In order to get an EUA, the COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers had to submit results of the vaccine clinical trials, studies and safety data, and they were also required to prove that they could safely and consistently produce the vaccine. 

Each COVID-19 vaccine has been tested and approved through clinical trials and EUA. They are completely safe to get and can’t give you COVID-19. There is also no proof the vaccines lead to any kind of physical or mental disabilities, infertility or other extremities.