Here’s How Pharmacists Can Offer Reassurance on Messenger RNA Vaccines

Fear of the unknown is an issue for many Americans unsure about getting the first COVID-19 vaccines to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA. Because those are the first messenger RNA vaccines approved for use, a lot of questions have been generated. Here is some essential information to help pharmacists answer them accurately and completely.

SYRACUSE, NY – Just days before the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the first vaccine to protect against COVID-19, a published study confirmed that a two-dose regimen of the product conferred 95% protection against SARS-COV2 infection in people 16 or older.

The report in the New England Journal of Medicine also notes that safety over a median of 2 months was similar to that of other viral vaccines for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine BNT162b2.

While the report from industry, Argentinean researchers and investigators from the Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, might be reassuring, there is still a question pharmacists will face: What are messenger RNA vaccines—also called mRNA vaccines—and why should I get one?

Both the first vaccine to get an EUA and what is likely to be the second, Moderna’s mRNA-1273, fall into that category. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered the follow information to help formulate a response.

Public health officials point out that, while mRNA technology is new, it is not unknown, having been studied for more than a decade. Furthermore, they add, mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease in the vaccinated person. Finally, the CDC emphasizes that mRNA from the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell and does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA.

“mRNA vaccines take advantage of the process that cells use to make proteins in order to trigger an immune response and build immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” according to the agency’s website. “In contrast, most vaccines use weakened or inactivated versions or components of the disease-causing pathogen to stimulate the body’s immune response to create antibodies.”

As for their mechanism of action, mRNA vaccines have strands of genetic material, mRNA, inside a special coating. That protects it from being broken down by enzymes in the body and aid its entrance to the muscle cells near the vaccination site.

In effect, according to the CDC, “mRNA can most easily be described as instructions for the cell on how to make a piece of the “’spike protein’ that is unique to SARS-CoV-2. “

With only a portion of the protein made, no harm is done to the person, but it is antigenic. The protein, or antigen, causes the immune system to begin producing antibodies and activating T-cells to fight off what appears to be infection. Since the antibodies are specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the immune system is primed to protect against future infection.

Public health officials add that mRNA vaccines have several benefits compared to other types of vaccines. Among those are:

  • use of a non-infectious element,
  • shorter manufacturing times,
  • potential for targeting of multiple diseases,
  • the ability to be developed in laboratories and
  • use of a DNA template and readily available materials.

“This means the process can be standardized and scaled up, making vaccine development faster than traditional methods,” the CDC write. “In addition, DNA and RNA vaccines typically can be moved most rapidly into the clinic for initial testing. In the future, mRNA vaccine technology may allow for one vaccine to target multiple diseases.”

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