How the COVID-19 Vaccine Works


“The key difference [between the COVID-19 vaccines and the flu vaccine] is that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not have either live or dead virus,” Haley says. While most flu vaccines introduce your body to a dead version of the virus so it can fight it in the future, the COVID vaccine just — as AOC said — shows it the picture.

Neither vaccine can make you sick, but the flu vaccine introduces a dead version of the actual virus, Haley says, while the COVID just introduces ‘a picture’ or ‘recipe’ of the virus.

“You can not get COVID-19 from the vaccines that use messenger RNA,” he says.

Another big difference between the flu and COVID vaccines is that unlike the flu shot, the COVID-19 vaccines need to be given in two doses (21 days apart for Pfizer and 28 days apart for Moderna).

“Studies found that one dose alone was not enough to mount a strong and sustainable immune response compared to two doses,” Parikh says. “The flu shot is able to mount good immunity but it is a different type of vaccine. The immunity from both mRNA COVID-19 vaccines is actually significantly better than what is conferred with the seasonal flu shot.”

According to Haley, after getting the first shot, it can take up to a few weeks for your body to develop the cells that will make you immune.

“This means that it’s possible for you to get sick [with COVID-19] during that time,” Haley says. “So it’s important to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing even after getting the vaccine.”

Is it safe?

As of February 4, nearly 28 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine. And, the vaccine has been studied in more than 70,000 people in clinical trials.

“Short term effects include arm soreness, muscle aches, fever, chills or fatigue,” Parikh says. “Long term effects are unknown, but from six months of data, thus far, it does not appear to cause any long term severe or irreversible side effects.”

Conversely, we know that COVID-19 has left people with lingering side effects and conditions ranging from lung damage and depression to hair loss.

“With 350,000 deaths in the U.S. and 1.8 million globally, along with many people left, even healthy ones, with long term kidney, brain and lung damage, we should be more afraid of the virus than the vaccine,” Parikh says. (The numbers Parikh referenced have since grown.)

When Rep. Ocasio-Cortez received her vaccine, she noted that she felt fine the first day and experienced mild fatigue one day later.

According to CNN, the FDA advised that the only people who should not get the vaccine are those with severe allergies to the vaccine’s ingredients, adding that people with a history of allergic reactions to vaccines should be monitored for half-an-hour after receiving the vaccine.

That said, people with food or mold allergies should be fine and people who are pregnant are advised to consult with their doctor before making a decision, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Will we still have to wear masks? What’s next?

The short answer is masks are still necessary, at least for now.

“The vaccines do not completely block infection, but they induce antibodies that prevent the virus from replicating once it enters the body,” Suliman says. “Therefore, the person who is vaccinated is very likely to be protected from getting severe disease.”

Experts say that until the majority of the U.S. population is vaccinated, communities need to collectively still wear masks. 

There are also new variants of COVID-19 forming, though it seems the current vaccines could still provide some protection. Still, social distancing, hand-washing, and mask wearing are all still crucial safety habits.

This is probably a lot to take in, and experts know that. But Suliman says there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I know the morale is low after the difficult year we all had, but we are starting to see the beginnings of the end. The vaccines and improved treatments are signaling that there is a way out of the pandemic,” she says. “It is our responsibility in the meantime to be patient, educate ourselves on the new data and interventions and respect public health interventions like social distancing, wearing a mask and hand hygiene to help us all get out of this sooner rather than later. A little bit of patience will help us all in the long run.”



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