What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine right now
By Kristin K. Dascomb, MD, PhD
Jan 4, 2021
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
Imagine a holiday season with family gatherings, warm hugs, shared meals, and football games enjoyed shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow fans. All that may be possible someday in the future, with the promise of COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the country in the coming weeks and months. The key to defeating this debilitating and deadly disease is ensuring vaccines are safe and effective, and that enough of us get vaccinated once we have access.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is poised to authorize the first of these vaccines, possibly within days or weeks. It may be months before until they’re available for the general public. Now is the time to learn about COVID-19 vaccines, ask questions, and understand whether and when vaccination might be right for you. While we wait for vaccines and learn more about how long they may provide immunity, all of us must continue masking, social distancing, and practicing other prevention behaviors so we can keep ourselves and each other safe and healthy.
A vaccine must be at least 50 percent effective (reduces the risk of infection by one half) for it to be granted FDA authorization for emergency use. Another way to say this is: you are half as likely to become infected compared to those who are not vaccinated. Any level of effectiveness can help slow the spread. Early data indicates that some COVID-19 vaccines being developed may be around 95 percent effective.
Because we don’t yet know how effective the vaccines are and for how long, individuals will need to continue all other prevention methods including masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene.
Vaccines help the body develop immunity by training the immune system to recognize and remember how to respond to the disease-causing part of a virus. Vaccines traditionally contain either weakened or inactivated (killed) viruses or purified, signature proteins of viruses.
In the COVID-19 response, some manufacturers are making vaccines in new ways, using messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA vaccines “teach our cells to make a protein, or a piece of a protein, that triggers an immune response inside our bodies,” according to the CDC. “That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.” mRNA vaccine does not include live virus and cannot give someone COVID-19. Nor do these vaccines interact with our own DNA in any way. Instead our cells break down and get rid of the mRNA after it receives the “instructions.”