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How do mRNA messenger vaccines work?

This article was published on
January 26, 2021

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A vaccine’s role is to teach the immune system how to recognize a foreign body (the coronavirus in this case) that could make a person sick. Once the immune system is able to identify a harmful invader, it can attack the actual virus if it enters the body. Most vaccines are made from an inactivated or weakened pathogen (bacteria or virus). Because the virus in the vaccine is weakened or inactivated, they don’t cause severe disease in the body but are able to train the immune system to recognize the invader and be able to fight it by creating antibodies. These antibodies are a special kind of protein that know how to fight that specific virus. The immune system then remembers to make these antibodies in case such virus does enter our body in the future, and thus prevent disease. mRNA vaccines or "messenger RNA" vaccines are different. They're a type of vaccine that does not carry an inactivated or weakened pathogen. Instead, they carry information, which instructs the cells in the body to create a protein or a part of a protein, which in turn triggers an immune response. Teaching the cells to create this harmless but foreign protein allows the body to activate its immune system. On seeing a foreign element in the system, the immune system fires into action and starts producing antibodies to fight against the invader. Soon after making the protein, our cells break down the mRNA and get rid of it. mRNA COVID-19 vaccines cannot cause COVID-19 because they do not carry the full information needed to make the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the body. They only carry information from a specific protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. mRNA vaccines are faster to produce (about a week) as compared to conventional vaccines that can take many months to produce an experimental batch. The production of mRNA vaccines is safer than traditional vaccine production as it doesn’t require actual viruses, whereas, producing traditional vaccines require growing large quantities of actual virus and can pose to be a potential biohazard. Although traditional vaccines are very effective, it has been posited that mRNA vaccines could create an even stronger immune response to certain viruses, but more evidence will need to be gathered on that. One challenge of mRNA vaccines is that it is very fragile and needs to be stored at very cold temperatures.

A vaccine’s role is to teach the immune system how to recognize a foreign body (the coronavirus in this case) that could make a person sick. Once the immune system is able to identify a harmful invader, it can attack the actual virus if it enters the body. Most vaccines are made from an inactivated or weakened pathogen (bacteria or virus). Because the virus in the vaccine is weakened or inactivated, they don’t cause severe disease in the body but are able to train the immune system to recognize the invader and be able to fight it by creating antibodies. These antibodies are a special kind of protein that know how to fight that specific virus. The immune system then remembers to make these antibodies in case such virus does enter our body in the future, and thus prevent disease. mRNA vaccines or "messenger RNA" vaccines are different. They're a type of vaccine that does not carry an inactivated or weakened pathogen. Instead, they carry information, which instructs the cells in the body to create a protein or a part of a protein, which in turn triggers an immune response. Teaching the cells to create this harmless but foreign protein allows the body to activate its immune system. On seeing a foreign element in the system, the immune system fires into action and starts producing antibodies to fight against the invader. Soon after making the protein, our cells break down the mRNA and get rid of it. mRNA COVID-19 vaccines cannot cause COVID-19 because they do not carry the full information needed to make the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the body. They only carry information from a specific protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. mRNA vaccines are faster to produce (about a week) as compared to conventional vaccines that can take many months to produce an experimental batch. The production of mRNA vaccines is safer than traditional vaccine production as it doesn’t require actual viruses, whereas, producing traditional vaccines require growing large quantities of actual virus and can pose to be a potential biohazard. Although traditional vaccines are very effective, it has been posited that mRNA vaccines could create an even stronger immune response to certain viruses, but more evidence will need to be gathered on that. One challenge of mRNA vaccines is that it is very fragile and needs to be stored at very cold temperatures.

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What our experts say

A vaccine’s role is to teach the immune system how to recognize a foreign body (the coronavirus in this case) that could make a person sick. Once the immune system is able to identify a harmful invader, it can attack the actual virus if it enters the body.

Most vaccines are made from an inactivated or weakened pathogen (bacteria or virus). Because the virus in the vaccine is weakened or inactivated, they don’t cause severe disease in the body but are able to train the immune system to recognize the invader and be able to fight it by creating antibodies. These antibodies are a special kind of protein that know how to fight that specific virus. The immune system then remembers to make these antibodies in case such virus does enter our body in the future, and thus prevent disease.

mRNA vaccines or "messenger RNA" vaccines are different. They're a type of vaccine that does not carry an inactivated or weakened pathogen. Instead, they carry information, which instructs the cells in the body to create a protein or a part of a protein, which in turn triggers an immune response. Teaching the cells to create this harmless but foreign protein allows the body to activate its immune system. On seeing a foreign element in the system, the immune system fires into action and starts producing antibodies to fight against the invader. Soon after making the protein, our cells break down the mRNA and get rid of it.

mRNA COVID-19 vaccines cannot cause COVID-19 because they do not carry the full information needed to make the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the body. They only carry information from a specific protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

mRNA vaccines are faster to produce (about a week) as compared to conventional vaccines that can take many months to produce an experimental batch. The production of mRNA vaccines is safer than traditional vaccine production as it doesn’t require actual viruses, whereas, producing traditional vaccines require growing large quantities of actual virus and can pose to be a potential biohazard. Although traditional vaccines are very effective, it has been posited that mRNA vaccines could create an even stronger immune response to certain viruses, but more evidence will need to be gathered on that. One challenge of mRNA vaccines is that it is very fragile and needs to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Context and background

The mRNA vaccine, though new in usage, is not a new technology. mRNA has been extensively studied for decades.

There have been several social media claims alleging that COVID-19 vaccines can genetically alter human DNA (the human genome) permanently. According to experts, the vaccines cannot genetically modify human DNA, not even temporarily. To alter the human DNA, one would need to introduce genetic material from another organism into the nucleus of the cells of the human body which contains their natural DNA. The mRNA does not enter the nucleus: it remains in the cytoplasm of the cell where the spike protein is made. It is also relatively fragile, weakens, and breaks down in the cell within about 72 hours, which is why it is kept at such low temperatures. The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines contain only a portion of the virus’s genetic code (RNA), in contrast to most other vaccines which used the entire inactivated or weakened viruses, to stimulate immune system response from the body.

The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are also incapable of causing COVID-19 and have undergone safety testing. Just like with other shots, some people experience temporary local reactions or soreness. With the second booster shot, which actually builds the ‘immunological memory’ for the cells for a longer period, side effects like fever, fatigue, or muscle ache might be experienced by some people.

Resources

  1. Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines (US C.D.C)
  2. Developing mRNA-vaccine technologies (RNA Biology)
  3. How do mRNA vaccines work? (Medical News Today)
  4. Why are mRNA vaccines so exciting? (Harvard Medical School)
  5. RNA vaccines: an introduction (PHG Foundation - Univ. of Cambridge)
  6. mRNA vaccines — a new era in vaccinology (Nature)
  7. Will an mRNA vaccine alter my DNA? (GAVI)
  8. False claim: A COVID-19 vaccine will genetically modify humans (Reuters)
  9. Covid-19 Vaccines Can’t Alter Your DNA, Here’s Why (Forbes)

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