COVID-19 mRNA vaccines vs. traditional vaccines explained

Jacksonville, FL. — 223,208 people have been vaccinated in Duval County, according to latest COVID-19 vaccine summary from the Florida Department of Health.

But one thing that stop is stopping some people from getting vaccinated is not understanding how the mRNA technology works in two of the vaccines being used in the U.S.

Action News Jax Courtney Cole breaks down how mRNA technology works and how it’s different from a traditional vaccine.

“Do you know how the COVID-19 vaccine works?” Cole asked Michelle Long, a local resident.

“I know that they say it does not have the virus in it, it’s supposed to build your immune system up,” Long replied.

Majiye Uchibeke, a student living in Duval County told Cole, “I don’t have much information about how it works.”

The first thing you need to understand is how DNA and mRNA work, in order for the function of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, to make sense.  Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both use mRNA technology.

Think of your DNA  as the “instruction manuals” in genes that tell a living thing—what to do.

The mRNA helps cells to read those instructions.

“The mRNA vaccine technology works by inserting mRNA into your cells, which makes them copy something,” said Chad Neilsen. Neilsen is the Director of Accreditation and Infection Prevention at UF Health.

Neilsen explained that scientists mapped out the COVID-19 virus  and discovered there are certain proteins in the virus. One of them is a “spike” protein.

“And when that MRNA enters your cell, it creates a spike protein, which is something that the COVID virus has on the outside of cell,” Neilsen said.

When you get vaccinated, the mRNA enters your cells and tells your cell to make that spike.

Once your body’s immune system responds and has learned how to fight it off—it now has memory of that response if the actual virus were to enter your body later.

Neilsen told Cole despite concerns of newness, mRNA vaccines have existed for more than 10 years and have been used with the Ebola and Zika viruses...but he says it’s new in terms of how widely it’s being used on the market.

“...And that difference really, if you take it down to the minute level, is previous vaccines use either dead or what we call live, attenuated parts of a real virus, to get your immune system to respond,” Neilsen said.

For those questioning how this vaccine came to the market so quickly, the Director of Accreditation and Infection Prevention points to unprecedented resources and collaboration between governments.

“Yes, the vaccine did come to market quickly. But never before in modern history, has the entire world and all of the governments in the world banded together to get a vaccine to market so quickly. And when you marshal out those kinds of resources to the tune of billions of dollars, science can move very quickly— when it’s provided the amount of funding that’s needed to do it,” Neilsen told Action News Jax.

But some still plan to wait before they get the shot.

" I feel there hasn’t been enough time since it has come out, to actually see what side effects people may have,” Long said.

While you may experience some side effects from any of the 3 COVID-19 vaccines, Neilsen explained the symptoms you may have is your immune system’s response. He said it’s important to note that you can not get COVID-19 from the vaccine.

“In fact, the mRNA that is in the vaccine is synthetic. It’s literally made in a lab to mimic what the spike protein of the actual COVID virus looks like. So there is no COVID virus in this vaccine, so it’s impossible to actually get COVID from it,” Neilsen explained.

If you’re curious about what category the Johnson & Johnson vaccine falls under, it’s a viral vector vaccine, which means it uses a modified version of a different virus to deliver instructions to our cells.

You can read more from the CDC here: