The First Vaccines for COVID-19: What We Know So Far

Michigan Medicine experts discuss the mRNA vaccines.

12:48 PM

Author | Kelly Malcom

nurse getting covid vaccine saying the covid vaccine live q&a
Michigan Medicine

Editor's note: Information on the COVID-19 crisis is constantly changing. For the latest numbers and updates, keep checking the CDC's website. For the most up-to-date information from Michigan Medicine, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage.

Almost immediately after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified in January 2020, scientists got to work on a vaccine. In less than a year, one of top candidate vaccines, from Pfizer and BioNTech, was granted Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A second vaccine from Moderna Inc. and NIH is likely to soon follow. Both vaccines use mRNA technology.

Sandro Cinti, M.D., Professor of Infectious Disease at University of Michigan Medical School likens an mRNA vaccine to "Tom Cruise's character in Mission Impossible." Like an undercover spy, the vaccine's mission is to get into the cell, deliver instructions and then self-destruct. The instructions are a small piece of genetic code, the mRNA, for the coronavirus' spike protein. "The spike protein is an antigen, which is the piece of the virus we want an immune response to," Cinti explains.

The body's immune system recognizes that protein as an attack and ramps up to fight it off. The vaccine tricks the body into reacting to a harmless set of instructions so that if you encounter the virus again, your body already knows how to fight it.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

The Pfizer and Moderna viruses were shown to be over 90% effective in the more than 30,000 people who received one of the vaccines in a Phase 3 clinical trial.

What's in the COVID-19 vaccine?

The vaccine contains more than just mRNA, of course. Unlike what some online rumors have stated, the vaccine does not contain tracking devices, fetal tissue or any live virus. It won't give you COVID-19. Michigan Medicine's Chief Pharmacy Officer Stan Kent, RPh, explains that beyond the mRNA instructions themselves, the vaccine contains a fatty coating to protect the mRNA (which is delicate and sensitive to heat and light), salts to maintain proper pH and a stabilizing sugar. And those concerned about the mRNA itself, need not be, says Kent. "If you think about it, any cell, whether it be from a plant or animal, has DNA and RNA in it. We're ingesting and breathing it in constantly."

Should there be concerns about allergic reactions to the COVID vaccine?

Shortly after vaccination began in the UK, there were news reports of two people having severe allergic reactions after getting the vaccine. "People can have allergic reactions to medicine, a vaccine, food but these are pretty rare," says Adam Lauring, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology. "For instance, there are allergic reactions to the flu shot every year, but these reactions are short and manageable."

In fact, those getting the vaccine are observed for at least 15 minutes afterward to make sure they are okay. The CDC has also created an app called v-safe that patients can opt-in to report any side effects. Side effects that were common from the COVID-19 vaccine included injection site pain, tiredness, headache, fever among other mild effects.

Says Lauring, "I wouldn't say a couple of people with an allergic reaction among tens of thousands would be reason to be overly concerned about the safety of the vaccine."

SEE ALSO: Keeping Our Patients Safe During COVID-19

mRNA vaccines: Don't forget your second dose

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. In the early phases of the vaccine clinical trials, both groups looked to see how much of their vaccine was required to provide immunity, by looking at the amount of antibodies produced. They determined that two doses, one followed by another three to four weeks later, provided the best immunity with the fewest side effects. Though there was data that one dose offered some protection, "it's not something you can bank on and the amount of data to support that were not particularly strong," says Lauring. "I definitely would not encourage people to think that after the first dose everything is fine. You really need to show up for the second dose."

Special populations and the COVID vaccine

Certain groups who are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination may be wondering if the vaccine is safe for them, including people who are immunocompromised or who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

"There's no reason to believe the mRNA vaccine will have detrimental effects in someone who is immune compromised," says Cinti. The CDC Advisory Committee on Infection Practices, which recommended the vaccine for emergency use, notes that these people are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Although there is no specific safety or efficacy data, people who are immunocompromised can receive the vaccine after discussing with their clinician. 

Like Podcasts? Add the Michigan Medicine News Break on iTunes or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

"It's all about your risk," says Cinti. "If the risk of getting COVID-19 outweighs the risk of getting the vaccine, then you might want to get the vaccine."

Data have shown that people who are pregnant are also at higher risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19. With the potential devastating consequences of COVID-19 in mind, the CDC and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine have recommended that pregnant women be offered the vaccine after a discussion with their doctor about risk and benefits.

Even as healthcare workers and others receive the first doses, the CDC, FDA and other researchers will continue to study the vaccines, gathering data to see how they perform in the real world.

"Any time there's a vaccine, there's a robust reporting system that monitors for adverse events that will continue to track these events in case there's something that pops up that wasn't seen in the clinical trial," says Lauring.

But, he says, there should be no question in taking a safe and effective vaccine during a pandemic.

SEE ALSO: Seeking Medical Care During COVID-19


More Articles About: Preventative health and wellness Covid-19 Community Health Health Care Delivery, Policy and Economics Hospitals & Centers All Research Topics Health Care Quality Immunizations Wellness and Prevention Drug Discovery infectious disease COVID-19 Vaccine
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]

734-764-2220

Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Subscribe
Featured News & Stories Illustration of scientists and doctors playing basketball in white coats and scrubs
News Release
Four U-M teams selected for virtual tournament of science
U-M researchers' work made the bracket in the 2024 STAT Madness tournament of science, and need public support to advance
Older woman checks her face in the mirror
Health Lab
Does trying to look younger reduce how much ageism older adults face?
How do ageism and positive age-related experiences differ for people who have tried to look younger, or feel they look younger, than they actually are? A new study examines this and the relationship with health
Health care provider loads syringe with measles vaccine
Health Lab
Measles: 10 things to know about immunization and prevention
Measles: 10 things to know about immunization and prevention
Jianping Fu, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan and the corresponding author of the paper being published at Nature discusses his team’s work in their lab with Jeyoon Bok, Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Health Lab
Human stem cells coaxed to mimic the very early central nervous system
The first organized stem cell culture model that resembles all three sections of the embryonic brain and spinal cord could shed light on developmental brain diseases
Graphic showing pills, a heart and brain with data on aspirin use
Health Lab
Aspirin can prevent a second heart attack or stroke, but many don’t use it
Washington University School of Medicine and Michigan Medicine researchers found that fewer than half of people who have experienced a heart attack or stroke use aspirin to prevent a second one.
Minding Memory with a microphone and a shadow of a microphone on a blue background
Minding Memory
The Intersection of Artificial Intelligence & Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias
In this episode, Matt and Donovan talk with Dr. Jason H. Moore, Director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence Research and Education (CAIRE) and Chair of the Department of Computational Biomedicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Jason discusses the coming impact of artificial intelligence on a spectrum of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia (ADRD) issues. We discuss how tools such as AI-powered chatbots may improve quality of life for people living with dementia (and their caregivers) and how AI may contribute in the future to diagnosis and treatment.