How do COVID-19 vaccines compare? Here’s what you need to know.

Time saver 5 min read

Published: Friday, May 14, 2021

It feels like decades have passed since the beginning of the global pandemic. Now with vaccine access on the rise, we’re starting to see a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. But with the widespread effort to vaccinate as many people as possible, there are a lot of questions about how the vaccines work and possible side effects.

The answer? The vaccine you should get is the first one that becomes available to you. All of the available vaccines are effective in protecting you against COVID-19. But we know you have questions. We’re here to help you understand and compare COVID-19 vaccines, plus provide some insights into the authorization process and the differences between the vaccine options available.

Comparing the COVID-19 vaccines: mRNA vs. vector

There are a few different COVID-19 vaccines available right now. They all work to fight the coronavirus, but they all do it a little differently depending on their design. Currently, there are two types of COVID-19 vaccines: mRNA and vector.

How do mRNA vaccines work?

You’ve likely heard a lot of buzz about this type of vaccine in the news because it’s a relatively new, highly effective type of vaccine. mRNA vaccines contain a small piece of genetic code from the coronavirus. That code gives our cells instructions to make copies of the proteins unique to that virus, called spike proteins.

Our bodies will notice that these new spike proteins aren’t meant to be there, triggering an immune response. Then, if we happen to be exposed to the coronavirus, our immune system already knows how to fight it off.

mRNA vaccines won’t alter your DNA in any way — they don’t have any ability to change your genetic code. You also can’t get COVID-19 from mRNA vaccines. The vaccines don’t actually contain the coronavirus, just a piece of its code. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines.

How do vector vaccines work?

Vector vaccines, also called carrier vaccines, act similarly to mRNA vaccines in that they instruct our bodies to make spike proteins in order to trigger an immune response. But these instructions are received through a slightly different route.

In vector vaccines, inactivate viruses act as a “trojan horse” to carry the genetic code for spike proteins to our cells. Our body recognizes this as something to fight against, training our immune system to fight off the virus if we become exposed in the future.

You also can’t get COVID-19 from a vector vaccine — the inactivate viruses the vaccine uses aren’t the same as the coronavirus. The Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine is a vector vaccine.

If I’ve already had COVID-19, should I get vaccinated?

In short, yes. Even if you’ve already had COVID-19, we still don’t know how long immunity lasts after recovery. Therefore, it’s recommended that everyone get vaccinated to protect themselves and others.

If you've recently had COVID-19 and have questions about getting vaccinated, consult with your doctor.

Do I still need to follow mask mandates and social distancing once I’m vaccinated?

According to CDC guidance, people who are fully vaccinated can resume activities they did before the pandemic. This means that if you are fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask or socially distance unless it is required by state, local or business guidelines.

An individual is considered to be fully vaccinated two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, or two weeks after the second shot in a two-dose vaccine series.

It’s important to remember that state and local guidelines around masking and social distancing may vary. For the most up-to-date guidance where you live, your state's health department website.

Are the COVID-19 vaccines safe?

Because COVID-19 has had such a large impact on everyone and everything, there was a lot of demand for vaccines. Many companies worked diligently to create a vaccine against the coronavirus that would protect our communities quickly and effectively.

Think of it like moving into a new house. If you’re moving on your own, it can take a long time. But if you call a couple of friends to help you out, you’ll all be able to complete the same job in a much shorter timeframe. That’s exactly what these companies did: They got bigger teams invested in creating the same product.

Even though the vaccines were produced quickly, they weren’t produced carelessly. The COVID-19 vaccines aren’t any less safe or effective than other vaccines that have taken longer to make. In fact, researchers were studying and working on mRNA vaccine technology for many years prior to the pandemic. That hard work set the foundation for quick vaccine development.

In addition, all vaccines go through rigorous clinical trials and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations before being administered to the general public.

When it’s your turn to get vaccinated, whatever type of the COVID-19 vaccine you receive will be safe and effective.

Which COVID-19 vaccines are available right now?

Let’s compare each of the COVID-19 vaccines to learn more about when they were authorized and which one you should get.

The Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine

The Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine is the first authorized carrier (vector) vaccine against COVID-19. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very similar to each other, but the J&J vaccine is a little different in how it works. The most noticeable difference is that the J&J vaccine is administered as one dose—this could make it easier and faster to distribute. Studies are still underway to test if two doses, two months apart show more efficacy in clinical trials.

  • Status: Received FDA emergency use authorization on Feb. 27, 2021, distribution resumed effective Apr. 23, 2021.
  • Type of vaccine: Vector
  • Authorized for: Adults 18 years and older. Expected to start testing on children.
  • Dosage: One shot. (A regimen of two shots, two months apart, is being studied.)
  • Common side effects: Fatigue, fever, headache, injection site pain, or myalgia (pain in a muscle group or group of muscles). Side effects are generally mild and usually subside within a few days.
  • Very rare incidents of blood clots have been reported in people receiving the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine, occurring at a rate of about 7 per 1 million vaccinated. The FDA and CDC are confident that the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine is safe and effective in preventing COVID-19, however women under 50 years old should be aware of this rare but increased risk.

The Moderna vaccine

Authorization of the Moderna vaccine followed quickly after the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna vaccine’s effectiveness is similar to the Pfizer vaccine, but it can be transported and stored at typical freezer temperatures. It can be stored that way for up to 30 days, which makes for easier distribution. The Moderna vaccine has a slightly longer waiting period between doses than the Pfizer vaccine.

  • Status: Received FDA emergency use authorization on Dec. 18, 2020
  • Type of vaccine: mRNA
  • Authorized for: Anyone 18 years and older. Currently testing on children 12 to 17 years old.
  • Dosage: Two shots, 28 days apart.
  • Common side effects: Chills, headache, pain, tiredness, and redness or swelling at the injection site. Side effects are generally mild and usually subside within a few days.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine you likely heard about because it was the first to be authorized by the FDA for emergency use. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires strict storage in temperature-controlled units at approximately 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit before it’s thawed for injection. Research is still ongoing to see if the vaccine can be stored at higher temperatures, which would make for easier distribution.

  • Status: Received FDA emergency use authorization on Dec. 18, 2020
  • Type of vaccine: mRNA
  • Authorized for: Anyone 12 years and older.
  • Dosage: Two shots, 28 days apart.
  • Common side effects: Chills, headache, pain, tiredness, and redness or swelling at the injection site. Side effects are generally mild and usually subside within a few days.

So which COVID-19 vaccine should I get?

The vaccine you should get is the one you’re able to schedule soonest.

All vaccines are effective, and all vaccines are considered clinically equivalent in preventing hospitalization and death due to severe COVID-19. Given the excellent performance and effectiveness of all vaccines in this important measurement, we strongly encourage you to receive any authorized vaccine that’s offered. Don’t wait to get vaccinated!

Stay informed about your COVID vaccine options

At Virtuwell, it’s important to us that everyone can easily and effectively take care of their health. For more information and the latest details on COVID-19 vaccines check with your state’s health department.

Virtuwell follows CDC guidelines for coronavirus and COVID-19 prevention, screening, and treatment. For the latest updates, visit CDC’s website.

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