I’ve been fielding a number of questions on how the COVID19 mRNA vaccines work, and whether or not they are safe. As a healthcare provider in Washington state, I was given the option to receive the Pfizer vaccine in early January. I chose to get my first dose on January 5th, and will be getting my second dose, Jan. 26th. After reading about the ingredients in the vaccine, reviewing how mRNA vaccines work, and looking at the patient population I serve in my daily life, I felt it pertinent to get my vaccine sooner rather than later.
My goal today is to collate information for my readers to help understand more about the vaccine. It is clear that we will not reach herd immunity naturally without terrible tolls nor in any short timeline. To date, only around 14% of the population has had a confirmed case of COVID19, with 402,803 deaths. This percentage is from taking the total population of the U.S. from a google search of ‘total U.S. population 2020’, and looking at the published 2019 U.S. census, then dividing it by the daily update from the World Health Information on total numbers of confirmed cases and deaths per country, which can be accessed here. A vaccine gives us the ability to reach herd immunity much faster and more safely–provided enough of the population receives the vaccine.
Now I understand concern over how mRNA works. For most of us, it is a throwback to high school biology that is so far removed from our daily lives that we vaguely remember mRNA exists, but not what it does and does it mess with our actual DNA? (the short answer to that question is no). But before I get into that, I want to address masks, social distancing, and the vaccine. It is imperative that we continue to use all of our tools until enough of the population has been vaccinated. At this point in time, we do not know whether the vaccine will prevent you from spreading COVID19 to unvaccinated individuals. We need months– at the very least –to be able to study and track this information. Please, remain dedicated to wearing masks, washing hands for 20 seconds, and social distancing even after getting a vaccine.
Here’s the breakdown on how the mRNA vaccine works.
mRNA is a blueprint that allows parts of your cell to build things, mainly proteins. The mRNA in the COVID19 vaccine teaches your cells to build the spike proteins on the outside of the coronavirus. These are inactive and harmless. The newly built spikes are placed on the outside of your cell where your immune system suddenly reacts to this creepy, new thing that reads as bad news. This activates part of the immune system called T cells. At the same time, some spike proteins are released outside of the cell to float along in the bloodstream, which engages other immune cells called B cells. B cells make antibodies that flag dangerous critters and our body remembers for future invasions of said dangerous critters. So antibodies are being made to label and target the free floating spikes, while the T cells work on directing an immune response to the spike proteins on our cell wall by using cellular messengers called cytokines. This initiates an immune response that kills the cell infected by a virus or bacteria— in this case, the COVID19 virus.
Some T cells that fight off a virus or other pathogen become ‘memory T cells’ which remember the most effective way to bring a response to kill cells infected by this virus. These are key to providing long term immunity in regards to COVID19. The B cells are also memory cells, and they remember how to make the antibodies that stick to COVID19 to signal a full immune response to viruses that are outside a cell/in the bloodstream.
If you love this topic and want to learn more: check out this video explaining the immune response here. You can also watch a longer video explaining the T cell cytokine and B cell actions from an immunology teacher at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR here. Note when you watch the video phagocytose essentially means to eat.
Does it interact with DNA?
There has been concern over the mRNA from the vaccine interacting with our DNA. This is highly unlikely as mRNA is always translated (read, interacted with) outside the nucleus in the cytoplasm of a cell, and then it is destroyed after being read. In normal cellular process, mRNA is built in the nucleus and the released into the cytoplasm to be read and interacted with, and is broken down after a time period specific to the mRNA itself. This means mRNA vaccines do not deliver mRNA into the nucleus where it can interfere with DNA, and that it is broken down after being read.
To get the mRNA into the cytoplasm of a cell, the mRNA is being encapsulated in a circle of fat cells, called liposomes. You can read about the specific liposomes used as ingredients in each of the COVID19 vaccines below. If you’d like a more thorough explanation of this immune response: check out
Let’s talk about ingredients.
You can read about the ingredients in both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine here. The FDA briefing document for the Moderna vaccine also discusses the ingredients in a 54 page downloadable PDF here. The Pfizer FDA briefing document can be accessed here. Ultimately, the mRNA vaccine is safer than other vaccines since the mRNA can be created outside of a cellular medium. Conventional vaccines have to grow the pathogen in cellular mediums such as chicken eggs to later harvest, denature, or remove proteins from, and these cellular mediums can cause contamination in conventional vaccines, which in turn can cause higher risk of allergic reactions.
Let’s talk about side effects:
The common side effects are soreness at the injection sight, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever. Of note, more people experienced these side effects after the second dose than after the first dose, so it is important for vaccination providers and recipients to expect that there may be some side effects after either dose, but even more so after the second dose. It is important to note that these side effects are the natural result of your immune system building antibodies and activating T-cells and cytokines. It does not mean that the vaccine is bad or dangerous. Finally, there have been concerns over people fainting after getting the vaccine. This is a normal response that happens with a lot of shots, blood draws, or even when giving blood. It is called a vasovagal response. Vasovagal responses can even happen during an acupuncture session if the person has not eaten prior to their treatment. It is important to recognize that a vasovagal reaction is different than a side effect or a symptom of concern in regards to the vaccine.
Who should not get the vaccine:
This is directly from the CDC website. See the original here.
- If you have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) or an immediate allergic reaction—even if it was not severe—to any ingredient in an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, you should not get an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.*
- If you have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) or an immediate allergic reaction—even if it was not severe—after getting the first dose of the vaccine, you should not get another dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.*
- An immediate allergic reaction means a reaction within 4 hours of getting vaccinated, including symptoms such as hives, swelling, or wheezing (respiratory distress).
- This includes allergic reactions to polyethylene glycol (PEG) and polysorbate. Polysorbate is not an ingredient in either mRNA COVID-19 vaccine but is closely related to PEG, which is in the vaccines. People who are allergic to PEG or polysorbate should not get an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
Safety for pregnant or breastfeeding populations:
It is unethical to test new medical interventions in pregnant and breastfeeding populations, nor in small children. I think we can all agree on that. This is why we do not have any safety data for this population, and why children cannot get the vaccine at this time. There are preliminary studies in pregnant animals for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine that have optimistic results. However, there are not enough studies for the scientific community to draw conclusions at this time. For individuals that are pregnant or are thinking of starting a family, it is important to discuss this topic regarding whether or not to vaccinate with your OBGYN.
Will the new mutations impact the effect of the current vaccines? And should we still get them?
Ultimately, if we can get enough of the population vaccinated, this will reduce the ability for the virus to rapidly replicate and, it in turn, reduces the ability for the virus to mutate. In this short video below, Dr. Fauci explains that while the some of the new mutations can lessen the effectiveness in the vaccines, it doesn’t lessen them enough to completely negate their effectiveness. Ultimately, if we can squash the ability for the virus to replicate rapidly throughout the global population, we’ll see a reduction in mutations.
Here’s the video briefing with Dr. Fauci. (Please watch the video instead of just reading the headline, as the headline alone is misleading).
Ultimately, I hope you find this information helpful in understanding the new vaccines. If you find this blog helpful, please feel free to share among your peers.
Lindsey Thompson is an East Asian Medicine Practitioner at the Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She has a passion for holistic nutrition and lifestyle practices associated with Eastern Medicine. Practicing medicine and helping people find ways to improve their health at home is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her career.