How do COVID-19 vaccines really work?

With the recent rise in COVID cases across America, calls to get vaccinated are growing a lot louder. Tens of millions of Californians are still not fully vaccinated.

The threat of other (and more dangerous) variants is always out there. The COVID vaccine is literally the best shot you can get to protect yourself.

But how can you be sure? There’s so much noise out there, different vaccines, different variants – it seems complicated sometimes. The best first step is understanding just how COVID vaccines really work.

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3 kinds of vaccines?

The most widely used COVID-19 vaccines basically work the same way – they use proteins to train your immune system to fight a specific virus, preparing it to face the real thing one day.

“But don’t vaccines more or less give you the COVID virus so you can learn to fight it?” Not at all. No COVID-19 vaccine uses a whole version of the virus. It’s impossible to get COVID from a COVID vaccine. 

Remember how your immune system works? Viruses cause infection which triggers your immune system’s white blood cells. The ones fighting on the frontline are B lymphocytes (B cells), which detect the virus and produce precious antibodies, and T lymphocytes (T cells), which attack the cells that are already infected by the virus. 

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For COVID-19, there are three types of vaccines: messenger RNA (mRNA), vector, and subunit vaccines. They all generally work the same with some differences in how they introduce our bodies to that COVID protein.

An mRNA vaccine uses virus material to teach our cells how to homemake the COVID protein. As soon as they are made, our B and T cells get to fighting.

A protein subunit vaccine introduces the COVID protein directly to your immune system to trigger your B and T cells to work.

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A Vector vaccine takes COVID-19 material and puts it into a shell of a different modified virus. This modified virus (an adenovirus if we are talking COVID-19 vaccines) enters our cells and then the material inside teaches our cells to produce the COVID protein. Then, the B and T cells get to work.

The antibodies the B cells make from the vaccines will still fight other COVID variants out there, even if they mutate.

Which vaccine is for me?  

In California (and the United States), there are three vaccines to choose from – Pfizer (mRNA), Moderna (mRNA) and Johnson & Johnson (adenovirus vector). In fact, the top six COVID vaccines around the world are either mRNA or vector vaccines (the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, the Gamaleya vaccine in Russia and the CanSino vaccine in China are all adenovirus vector vaccines).

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“But hold on, wasn’t that Johnson & Johnson vaccine put on hold a while back?” Yes, it was briefly paused to conduct a safety review, and on April 23, 2021, the FDA and CDC lifted that pause. It’s authorized for emergency use.

“Is one vaccine better than the others?” No. They all teach your immune system the same skills. The best COVID-19 vaccine for you is the first one you can get.

One shot or two?

It doesn’t really matter since the immune response is the same. With Pfizer and Moderna, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your second shot. With Johnson & Johnson, you’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after that first shot. During those two weeks, your B and T cells learn to fight off those COVID proteins.

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But are they really safe?

All three vaccines available in the US have completed phase three trials, meaning tens of thousands of people participated in studies to determine how effective the vaccine is against a placebo and data on rare side effects, if any, is collected. In August 2021, Pfizer became the first COVID-19 vaccine to get FDA approval.

“But what about the side effects after getting a shot?” Yes, some people do experience side effects like fatigue or soreness, which is normal, it just means your body is learning to respond to the COVID protein. There’s no altering of your DNA, no microchips or any other sci-fi horrors involved.

Of course, the vaccine can’t do everything by itself. Take care of your body so your body can take care of you. A nutritious and balanced diet, exercising to keep fit and getting vaccinated gives you the best possible chance to fight COVID-19 and other illnesses.

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Get your vaccine now!

Teach your immune system a few tricks to fight COVID-19 and future variants by scheduling your vaccine appointment or find walk-in vaccination sites at MyTurn.ca.gov (available in multiple languages) or by calling (833) 422-4255. It’s free, it’s safe, and it’s the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 and its variants right now.

Feature Image via CDPH

This post was created by NextShark with the California Department of Public Health

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