How Does an mRNA Vaccine Work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unusual attention to everything from handwashing to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. As we move into the later stages of this pandemic, though, a different scientific concept has dominated the national conversation: vaccines. The study of the human immune system and how vaccines influence it is complex and sometimes counterintuitive, and the deployment of a new method for immunization based on mRNA has made it all the more confusing.

The two vaccines that have received Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) from the Food and Drug Administration are both mRNA vaccines. And since they’re our only hope for ending this pandemic, it’s crucial to understand how they work—and why you should get one.

Vaccines come in a few main forms, but they share the same central goal: equip our immune systems with the tools to handily defeat a pathogen we might encounter in the future. Think of it like a practice round before your body sees the real thing.

The exact way our bodies develop this preemptive immunity depends on the kind of vaccine we’re given. Live-attenuated vaccines provide our cells with a weakened version of a pathogen; protein subunit vaccines give just one part of a bad guy, so immune cells know how to recognize that part of a virus or bacterium. But mRNA (short for messenger RNA) vaccines actually provide our cells with the instructions for making a protein from the pathogen, in essence creating their own practice dummy. Our own cells produce the viral protein specific to, say, SARS-CoV-2, and then our immune system learns to recognize the proteins.

Source: https://www.popsci.com/