The COVID Column: How Do the COVID-19 Vaccines Work?

by Finley Keene

Question:

How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?


Answer:

That’s a great question, let’s get right into it. There are four main COVID vaccines. Two of the vaccines have been approved for emergency use in the United States, and one has been approved in the U.K. and will likely be approved and distributed in the United States by this spring. Most of us have heard of them: the vaccine from Pfizer, another from Moderna, and the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. In this article, we are going to learn how these different vaccines work. As of now, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being shipped to places all over the country, to prevent more COVID-19 infections. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work differently from the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, so we’re going to be discussing them separately.


First, let’s unpack the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. These vaccines work more like vaccines used to prevent other infections, which is by simply exposing the body to a weak virus that elicits a strong immune response. This weak virus infects a cell and eventually gets caught by the body’s immune system. Then, the immune system remembers the antigen (something the body uses to identify and kill the virus). In this case the antigen is the spike protein that you see on every picture of the COVID virus (the little mushroom- shaped attachment on the exterior of the virus). These vaccines are easy to store and distribute. They can be stored in a normal refrigerator for up to six months. This is a long time compared to the other vaccines. Here’s the problem: AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson are new to testing vaccines. Sometimes, well, putting it nicely, they “mislead” their customers (remember the “tears free” soap? Well, that completely ruined my toddler years).


Recently, they have been running into unexpected roadblocks, and have been getting surprising results. For example, for a trial in England, test subjects were given a half dose by accident, instead of a full dose for their first shot, according to BBC News. These participants proved more immune from COVID-19 than the people who were given the planned full dose for their first shot. In case you are wondering why they can’t just test the half dosage treatment, it has to be scientifically proven to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in the real world. East Side students learn how to conduct experiments in sixth grade. The fact that two multi-billion dollar companies could not make a single experiment with accurate results is plain shocking. Last month the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved in the U.K and we’ll see how it works. This vaccine isn’t available in the U.S right now, but it is cheap and will be the easily distributed vaccine on the market when it comes out.


Now, let's look into the two vaccines that are already being distributed: the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. These vaccines have already been approved by the FDA and are being shipped all around the country. These vaccines work differently than any others that came before. They use messenger RNA so they inject themselves in the cell, but don’t give the cells the virus, they merely give the cell orders to make antibodies. In case you are wondering, RNA is a genetic information molecule like DNA, a genetic blueprint that makes up who you are. RNA is essentially DNA, but RNA works directly with ribosomes to create proteins (some complicated stuff that I haven’t learned yet). These vaccines have had no problems during testing but are hard to store and last a short amount of time. According to Pfizer.com, their vaccine only lasts 30 days before expiring, and needs to be stored at -70 degrees fahrenheit. The Moderna vaccine is slightly easier to take care of, as it can be stored in a regular refrigerator, but is still not very convenient.


To sum it up, the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines work in a way that has been used before. They are convenient, but they are having problems with testing and have not been approved in the US at the time of this writing. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work in a novel way, are already out and have good results. The downside is they are hard to get and inconvenient for most people in most areas of the country. After all top priority patients are vaccinated, I suggest you get vaccinated as soon as possible.




If you have any questions regarding COVID-19 you want me to research and answer, please email me at finleyk@eschs.org.



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