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Covid Vaccine FAQ Part 1: How it Works

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

It is May 2021 and distribution of the new Covid-19 vaccines has rolled out fairly well (with a few setbacks). In past decades, vaccines have been fairly non-controversial, generally trusted and well accepted. In the last decade or so, large portions of the American public have lost confidence in the government, the medical establishment (especially the pharmaceutical branch), the media, science and "established authorities" in general. The result is that there is a lot of uncertainty, distrust, misinformation and even fear around these new vaccines for Covid-19. This is leading some to hesitate or even avoid getting these vaccines, delaying herd immunity and prolonging the complex health, social and economic crisis being caused by this virus.

Because I specialize in illnesses caused by both chronic infections as well as environmental exposures, many people have asked me to share my opinion and understanding of these vaccines. I have assembled (with the input of others) a list of common questions, theories and fears I have heard expressed. I will attempt to shed light on how these vaccines work, what they (do and don't) contain, and why I believe them to be safe and effective. I will refrain from speculating about the sources and fuel for the conspiracy theories and misinformation that are sweeping our country, but I will comment on a few of the more common non-fact based concerns. As with the other Covid missives I have written, this is emerging information, and what I have written is based on the information that is available to me today.

This began as a single post, but became so long and complex it had to be divided into parts. In this first installment I will answer these questions:

If you would like to navigate directly to the other posts you can click below.


Vaccine Ingredients Vaccine Safety Vaccine Efficacy Vaccine Necessity


How the Vaccines Work

I know the burning questions mostly revolve around vaccine safety, however, I think it is much easier to explain why I think these vaccines are so safe and effective if I first explain how the vaccines work. If you will permit me a moment of medical geekery - I think this new vaccine approach is incredibly cool, it sort of blows my mind with its cleverness.

What is messenger RNA?

The first thing to understand is that mRNA (messenger RNA) is NOT genetic code; it is not DNA or RNA. It does not enter the nucleus of any of your cells, and it does not get incorporated into your own genome. It does not stick around. It is a short acting message that disintegrates once it has been read and translated by tiny organells called ribosomes.

mRNA is like a negative imprint of a section of our genetic code. When a particular protein is needed by the body, the part of the DNA that contains that gene unravels and then "unzips", leaving half of the DNA to be "translated". A special protein (RNA polymerase) runs along this uncoupled strip of DNA and makes a reverse copy of it. This reverse copy is mRNA. The mRNA then leaves the nucleus and goes to cell organelles called ribosomes. Ribosomes "read" the mRNA and assemble amino acid chains (the order of the aminos is designated by the mRNA) and produces the protein that was coded for in the DNA. As soon as the mRNA is read, it disintegrates. Let's take a look:

Diagram showing creation of MRNA

Great, so what does that have to do with the Covid vaccines?

The Covid-19 virus (like many, but not all viruses) is fairly fragile, so it travels around inside a lipid capsule. This capsule has several different proteins on its surface. The most notable is the "spike" protein. This spike protein gives the virus capsule its characteristic crown appearance (thus the name "corona virus"), and is also the protein it uses to bind to our own cells. In the case of an actual infection, the spike protein binding to our own cells allows the whole capsule to enter our cells. The virus is then released inside our cells and uses our ribosomes to make more copies of itself.

picture of corona virus

The virus is hiding INSIDE these spiky balls.

The virus is NOT present in the spikes or on the coating of these balls.

Pfizer and Moderna are "mRNA" only vaccines. J&J also uses mRNA to induce immunity, but it delivers the mRNA a different way.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain synthesized mRNA that hold the code to make the spike protein that sticks off the outer "shell" of the Covid-19 virus. This mRNA is translated by ribosomes in a few of our cells (near the vaccine site) to make the Covid spike protein. Note that this is NOT the virus itself, but a marker on the outside of its carrier capsule. Also note that ribosomes are NOT inside the nucleus of our cells, but out in the cytoplasm.

Our immune system recognizes this spike protein as a foreign invader and makes antibodies to it. These antibodies will then attack the real Corona virus because it has the same spike proteins on its outer capsule. How cool is that? We have a vaccine that works against a virus without using any part of the actual virus, AND it trains our immune system to attack the virus capsule before the virus is even released into our body. THAT IS SO COOL...

picture of Corona virus spike protein

A model of the spike protein. If you use your imagination, you can see that this is a really, really long chain of amino acids that has wrapped itself up into the shape of a "crown spike". I think the Corona virus spikes look like golf tees. This is what the vaccine mRNA tells your body to make.

Viral Vector Vaccines

(Say that 3 times fast!) These vaccines also use mRNA to get our own cells to make the Covid spike protein. The difference is how they get this mRNA into our body. In this case, they use a "broken" adenovirus to deliver the Covid spike DNA into our cells. Adenovirus is the virus that causes the common cold. They remove the part of the virus that can make you sick. They also remove the part of the virus that allows it to make copies of itself, then they add the spike protein DNA to the broken adenovirus. This broken and modified adenovirus is able to go into your cells and deliver the Covid spike DNA. In this case the spike DNA does enter the nucleus of our cells where it is decoded to make mRNA for the spike protein. After that, the process works the same way. (The mRNA leaves the nucleus and is read by a ribosome, which creates spike proteins. Our body makes antibodies to the spike protein, and bing-bang-boom, Covid immunity.)