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What’s In The COVID-19 Vaccine?

The vaccines currently being rolled out from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna to the nation’s frontline health care workers and other at-risk populations are the first to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.
The vaccines currently being rolled out from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna to the nation’s frontline health care workers and other at-risk populations are the first to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The COVID vaccines being rolled out do not use inactive virus to build immunity, rather messenger RNA (mRNA) technology as a novel way of preventing illness

Sandra Lindsay’s bravery and wisdom spoke volumes when she became the first person in the US to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “Healing is coming,” she said directly after getting the shot, iconic yet profound words that will ultimately propel the country—and world—through the final stages of the pandemic.

It’s even more historic considering how the COVID vaccine works. The vaccines currently being rolled out from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna to the nation’s frontline health care workers and other at-risk populations are the first to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. Both vaccines—appropriately called the “vaccine of the century”—showed greater than 94-percent efficacy in preventing infections with minimal side effects during rigorous clinical trials.

Before getting into mRNA and how this novel vaccine works, please know that mRNA:

  • Does not inject the live virus that causes COVID-19
  • Does not interact or affect your DNA

So, what is mRNA?

The idea of mRNA has been studied for decades, but wasn’t fully realized to help develop new therapies and vaccines until 2010. While most vaccines use weakened or inactivated versions or components of the virus to stimulate your body’s immune system to create antibodies, mRNA does not.

Instead, the vaccine includes a molecule that contains mRNA, and when that enters your body, the mRNA sends a message instructing your cells to produce a spike protein that is very distinctive to COVID-19. Should you contract COVID-19, your body will now recognize this protein as a foreign body and then build an immune response to kill it—antibodies that have actual memory to combat the illness.

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden recently tweeted perhaps the clearest explanation of how mRNA works, stating, “Think of it as an email sent to your immune system that shows what the virus looks like, instructions to kill it, and then—like a Snapchat message—it disappears.”

Overall, mRNA is an absolute game-changer. Using the mRNA technology is safe and allows for much shorter manufacturing times. The process can be standardized and scaled up, allowing faster development than traditional methods.

Is it safe?

Of course the vaccines are safe. Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have shown minimal side effects during clinical trials, and only three people who have taken the Pfizer vaccine so far in the world have reportedly endured “severe” side effects, two of which had similar reactions to other vaccinations.

In terms of safety, consider this: We wouldn’t be giving the vaccine to our brave frontline health care workers who are treating the sickest COVID patients if it weren’t safe. So, keep that in mind when it becomes available to you.

To achieve emergency use approval from the FDA, the mRNA vaccines experienced the same rigorous safety assessment as all other vaccines. It’s approved only when the expected benefit outweighs any potential risks, which has now happened for both.

Building immunity

While it may take time to be available to the general population—perhaps not until summer 2021—you should still become familiar with the two.

Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses, which isn’t uncommon for vaccines. For comparison, MMR (2), DTaP (3), polio (4), hepatitis B (3), pneumococcal (3) and varicella (2) all require two doses or more.

Pfizer’s requires a second injection 21 days after the first, at which point you are expected to have 95-percent protection against COVID-19.

Moderna’s vaccine requires a second shot 28 days after the first, when you will have 94-percent protection. Regardless of which vaccine you are able to get, make sure to schedule your appointment for the second dose when you are getting your first. This will help keep you on track.

You should also follow COVID safety precautions, even after vaccination—wear a mask, wash your hands, keep social distancing. This will help ultimately slow the COVID’s spread and end the pandemic.

Who should not get it?

Almost everyone should be able to get the vaccine, even the frailest elderly people. Only one group was called out by the FDA as those who should avoid the vaccine—people who have a known history of a severe allergic reaction to any component of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

If you are pregnant, consult your doctor if you are considering getting vaccinated.

Looking forward

There are currently 63 COVID vaccines being researched around the world with several in Phase 3 of clinical trials.

By early next year, we could have a situation where an additional vaccine—from Johnson & Johnson—is approved for emergency use. This vaccine is made out of the adenovirus, which provides genetic material that encodes COVID-19 genes into your cells to make the proteins to fight them. J&J took a similar approach in developing its Ebola vaccine. If approved, J&J’s vaccine could accelerate availability since it’s a single shot and doesn’t require storage at sub-zero temperatures.

The positive vaccine rollout has already provided a glimmer of hope for ending COVID-19 with herd immunity, which can be achieved when 75-85 percent of the US population is vaccinated. Only then will we return to some sense of normalcy.

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