Everything you should know about the COVID vaccine
I’ve already written several posts on my experience with the first COVID vaccine dose (here and here) and the second dose (here and here). Today we’re putting it all together. I’m going to run through everything you should know about the COVID vaccine from how it works, to why you should get it, and what to expect when you go through the shots. My goal with this is to make it accessible as possible so you can make an informed decision and feel comfortable getting the shot. Sometimes the science is hard to understand, but I think we can simplify it enough to make sense to just about everyone. That said let’s give it… a shot.
First let’s start with how the vaccine came to be. It’s important to understand that the COVID vaccine was just the next step in our fight against viral infections. Vaccines have been a marvel of science and we didn’t stop developing new and better vaccines, so when COVID came with extra funding towards fighting the pandemic researchers were ready to develop a vaccine for it. In short, the science behind the COVID vaccine was decades in the making. For example this study from 2012 on mRNA vaccines, or this one from 2018. Simply put, we got lucky that we had the technology to develop this vaccine.
What the heck is mRNA anyway? mRNA is short for messenger RNA and is a single-stranded RNA molecule that is complementary to one of the DNA strands of a gene. When your DNA is read it creates a single strand of RNA that is used to create a certain protein that is needed. Without going too far into the biology, your DNA contains all the information about you, but it also contains information on things your body needs to survive. Proteins carry out the functions needed for life and to create those proteins something called a RNA polymerase reads your DNA (which is double stranded), and outputs a single stranded mRNA. Then along comes your friendly neighborhood ribosome which reads that mRNA and produces the protein. Let’s look at the visual representation of that…
Now I said the ribosome outputs a protein, which is kind of true, but not exactly the output is a polypeptide. A polypeptide is a single linear chain of many amino acids (any length), held together by amide bonds. A protein consists of one or more polypeptides (more than about 50 amino acids long). But the real question is what does this have to do with the COVID vaccine, well the vaccine is an mRNA vaccine!
mRNA is unfortunately delicate, which is why * YOU * are made up of DNA and not a bunch of mRNA. That’s also why the COVID vaccine needs to be handled so carefully and transported at a certain temperature, can only be thawed for a certain amount of time, and goes “bad” so quickly. It turns out mRNA is delicate stuff, but we needed it in this case to produce a vaccine. Let’s talk about what this vaccine does exactly. To do that, we need to look at COVID.
This isn’t what COVID *REALLY* looks like, it’s a representation, but it’s actually a pretty good representation! The red balls are called spike proteins and those spike proteins are how COVID-19 attaches itself to your cells and hijacks your cells processes to produce more copies of itself. That makes the spike protein pretty freaking important to COVID and I like to think of the spike protein as a key. That key fits a certain lock on your cells and that’s how the virus is “allowed” into the cell. The image below is a good representation of how this works.
Scientists selected that spike protein to develop the vaccine because of how important it is to the virus itself. Researchers rightfully deduced that even if COVID-19 mutates, which it has and is doing right now, the spike protein would be conserved across mutations. So far this theory seems to be holding up, but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 couldn’t find a new key to get into the cell (there are many). That’s why getting everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible is so important, the spike protein could mutate too …eventually.
The spike protein itself is harmless, it’s the virus behind the spike protein that is what causes the issue. So scientists sequenced the spike protein, created an mRNA chain that could be read by the body to create a copy of the spike protein, and thus giving your body a blueprint of what to look out for if it ever came across COVID. In short, you cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine because COVID-19 isn’t in the vaccine. However, you can (and frankly should) have an immune response to the vaccine because you’re teaching your immune system that the COVID-19 spike protein is bad and needs to be eliminated. By the way, here’s a better image of the spike proteins on COVID-19, for completeness sake.
As it turns out, what became the vaccine was developed in just a few months. However, it needed to be tested for safety and for efficacy, just because it works in theory doesn’t mean that it would work in practice. Several vaccines were developed and tested from phase 1 trials (small groups) to phase 3 (large groups) and it was determined to be safe. We needed the vaccine, but we needed it to be safe so instead of just rolling the dice with the vaccine at the start of the pandemic, it was tested. That’s why you should feel comfortable getting vaccinated, it was tested and shown to be safe. It was however given emergency use authorization. Why? Because this pandemic is an emergency, but that also means we don’t quite know how long the vaccine lasts, it could be 6 months, it could be 6 years, it could be a lifetime. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting to see. You can read more about all the phases of trials the vaccines went through, all the other vaccines that are currently being tested, were abandoned, and which countries have approved which vaccines, here.
We should also discuss the regiment that came to be. Two shots, spaced a certain amount of time apart, ~21 days for the Pfizer vaccine and ~28 days for the Moderna vaccine. One shot wasn’t as effective as two shots, or at least that’s the thought. In the Pfizer case, the first dose only gave a ~52% effectiveness. Not bad, but not ideal either, the second dose bumps that up to ~95% effective which is much, much better (read more). The reason we need two doses in this is the case is because your immune system isn’t perfect.
COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus from the Coronaviridae family (read more). In short, your body hasn’t seen it before and hasn’t dealt with anything like it. When COVID-19 shows up, your body takes time to figure out how to stop it. That delay from infection to fighting can be costly, COVID-19 has been found in heart (read more) and brain tissues (read more), we’re not exactly sure what it’s doing to the brain (read more), but it affects everyone and those effects last even after the person is recovered. In short, the time it takes your body to develop a response can be costly to your health. Death isn’t the only metric when it comes to COVID-19, people can suffer lasting, possibly life-long, lung, brain, and heart issues (read more).
The COVID vaccine gives your body an example of what it needs to be on the lookout for (like shown in cartoon above). When you get the vaccine, ribosomes in your body start reading the mRNA and produce the “key” or spike protein that COVID uses. Again, it does not and CANNOT give you COVID, it’s only the key that COVID uses to get into the cell. While there are such things as “live attenuated” vaccines, this is not one of them so there is exactly zero chance you can develop COVID from the vaccine.
To make sure that your immune system is “fully trained” and ready to deal with COVID if it ever comes in contact with it, you get a second booster shot between 3-4 weeks (which depends on the type of vaccine you get, as mentioned above) so you have a “robust” immune response. The timing is important because if you do it too soon the immune system could still be dealing with the first vaccine dose or just may not be ready for the second. If it’s too late then the immune system may have “forgotten” the first encounter with the spike protein. This second dose helps remind your immune system that the COVID spike protein is bad and that it needs to stop it should it ever be seen. This is why so many people (myself included) have such a large immune system response to the second vaccine. We don’t know how strict the timing needs to be for the second dose. We tested it with this specific timing so it may or may not matter if you do it later than 3-4 weeks and we won’t know without further testing. Because this was an emergency, we use this timing since it worked so well in the trials.
With the second dose in particular, you may run a slight fever, have chills, muscle soreness or less common, but I dealt with it have a headache, nausea and in some cases vomiting or diarrhea after the second dose. For reference the first dose I walked away with a sore arm for a day or two, the day after the second dose I felt sick, like mild flu sick, as in could still work (and did work), but wish I didn’t have to sick. Today (two days post shot) I feel perfectly fine, so ~24 hours of not feeling great.
That’s actually a good sign that your body is doing what it has to do though! Those are all normal immune system responses that show your body is fighting off an infection, which is exactly what the vaccine is teaching your body to do. So in some ways I’m glad I had the response I did because it tells me that my immune system is ready for a fight if I ever catch COVID. A day of feeling not so great is well worth it when compared to possible life-long health issues due to the virus.
So now that I have my two shots I can go out and live life normally right? Not quite. We’re still not 100% sure if I got COVID that I wouldn’t pass it on to someone who wasn’t vaccinated. I don’t want to be responsible for other people’s suffering, I am working on improving people’s lives, the last thing I want to do is make things worse for people. I will continue to wear a mask when I’m in public, wash my hands constantly, and do all the things I would normally do as if I weren’t vaccinated. I’m thankful to have gotten vaccinated, but not everyone is so lucky. The least I could do is continue to do my part to not be another link in the chain of COVID-19 spread.
It’s my hope that everyone will get vaccinated as soon as possible. If you were hesitant about it prior to reading this, I also hope that I’ve answered all your questions and made you feel confident in the science behind the vaccine and its safety. In order to beat this virus we all need to work together. We unfortunately haven’t been doing such a good job at that, but maybe if we can just trust that the science is sound we can all get vaccinated and eliminate COVID-19 once and for all.
TL;DR The vaccine is safe, effective, and you should get it just like I did. We all need to be vaccinated to beat this so please do your part and get vaccinated when you can get the vaccine. Until this is over, stay safe!