β€œIs a COVID vaccine like antivirus software on my computer? Can it protect against potential threats?”

Do you really want a mRNA vaccine?

What really happens when you get either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccines?

mRNA vaccines have been researched for 25 years. This is not an overnight sensation. Covid-19 virus just happened at the right time, which is why these vaccines could be developed so quickly.

So, what happens at the cellular level?

The genetic material of human cells is stored in our DNA. This DNA can only exist in the nucleus of cells, which makes the nucleus the home of all of our genetic material.  While DNA can only exist in the nucleus, every cell translates this genetic info into something called RNA when it leaves the nucleus. This process happens in our cells all the time. Thus, RNA never enters the nucleus. It just lives in the cell outside the nucleus. Therefore, RNA cannot change our genetic make-up.

There are different types of RNA. So called messenger RNA (mRNA) then translates its information and manufactures proteins. These proteins have a multitude of jobs in our body. When a person receives one of the two COVID mRNA vaccines, the protein produced is the spike protein that is also found on the actual virus – remember the illustrations of the virus with its many spikes that are supposed to resemble a crown. As a result of the foreign protein, our body makes antibodies against those spike proteins.

Most of the antibody production happens in our immune system where our lymph nodes and spleen play an important role; think of the swelling of lymph nodes in our necks due to a strep throat infection or an enlarged spleen when adolescents have infectious mononucleosis.

When you get an intramuscular injection of mRNA, the muscle tissue at the site of the injection and the corresponding lymph nodes (if given in the arm, the lymph nodes in your armpit), the spleen and to some extent the liver make the COVID virus spike protein. The majority of the spike protein is produced in the first 2-3 days after injection. After a few days routine mechanisms in our cells shut down the mRNA and thus the spike protein production stops. mRNA only survives for a short time. Our immune system then makes antibodies against the COVID virus spike proteins. Since only the spike proteins are produced, the vaccine cannot cause disease.

When the vaccinated person then encounters the real, live COVID virus, our immune system recognizes the spike protein on the actual virus and mobilizes the antibodies, which were produced when you received the vaccine.  Those antibodies are ready to help you fight the infection.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out.

Petra Hackenberg-Bauer, MD