Does the COVID vaccine contain the virus? No, and it won't make you "shed" spike proteins or transmit COVID-19 to others in any way, experts say, explaining how the vaccines work in an effort to swat down rumors and misinformation.
Misinformation about the coronavirus has been rampant on social media since the pandemic began, and vaccinations are no different. One rumor that's popped up is that unvaccinated people can get sick simply from contact with those who have gotten the COVID vaccine as they "shed" viral particles.
Public health experts and medical professionals across the board say that this type of "shedding" is absolutely not happening with the COVID vaccines - and that understanding how the vaccines work is key to knowing the truth.
There are currently three different COVID vaccines available in the U.S. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are both two-dose mRNA vaccines, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single-shot that uses an adenovirus. Importantly, none contain the live coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
What is an mRNA vaccine?
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines differ from traditional vaccines in their use of mRNA, a relatively new technology. Instead of introducing a weakened or an inactivated germ into your body, these vaccines inject mRNA, the genetic material that our cells read to make proteins, into your upper arm muscle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid and can most easily be described as instructions for how to make a protein or even just a piece of a protein."
The mRNA vaccines contain those instructions for the distinctive spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus and which attaches to a particular protein in our body. Once the mRNA is inside your muscle cells, the cells translate the information to make the protein or antigens and display it on their surface, according to Pfizer. Your immune system spots the antigens, recognizes them as foreign and begins to make antibodies.
Essentially, the vaccine teaches your body how to make the protein that triggers antibody production so if the real virus later enters your body, your immune system will recognize and fight it, according to the CDC.
How does the Johnson & Johnson vaccine work?
Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna shots, the J&J vaccine use a cold virus, called an adenovirus, to carry the spike gene into the body.
J&J’s shot uses the cold virus like a Trojan horse to carry the spike gene into the body, where cells make harmless copies of the protein to prime the immune system in case the real virus comes along.
Do any of the COVID vaccines contain the coronavirus?
The CDC notes that none of the vaccines use the live virus that causes COVID-19. The Pfizer mRNA vaccine, for example, contains instructions for making a harmless piece of just one of the coronavirus' 29 proteins and your body breaks down those instructions and gets rid of them once it has made the spike protein.
"This vaccine is not a live vaccine," Dr. Sharon Welbel, the director of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control for Cook County Health said in December as vaccinations were just beginning.
"The vaccine is a little snippet of the genetic code of the virus that causes COVID-19. It instructs our bodies how to create a protein that's specific to the virus and then we develop our own antibodies," Welbel said.
The CDC also notes the vaccine won't make people test positive for coronavirus, though it could cause a positive antibody test.
How are the COVID vaccines different from other vaccines?
Typically, a vaccine puts a weakened or inactivated virus into our bodies to trigger an immune response, which then produces antibodies. Those antibodies are what ultimately protect us from getting infected if we ever encounter the real thing.
According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines don't contain the virus in any form but instead contain the material to "teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies."
Does the COVID vaccine "shed" the virus?
In order to "shed" coronavirus particles, you would have to have the live coronavirus in your body, experts say - and none of the available vaccines contain the live virus in any amount.
"None of the COVID-19 vaccines can make you sick with COVID-19, nor do they contain the live virus in any amount," says Cook County Department of Public Health' Senior Medical Officer and Co-Lead Dr. Kiran Joshi. "COVID-19 vaccines teach our immune systems how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19."
Can people who get vaccinated spread COVID from the vaccination itself?
To this, Joshi also said no: "None of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. This means that a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19, and you cannot transmit the virus to others."
If you get side effects from your vaccination, are those contagious?
"No. Vaccines train our immune systems to create proteins that fight disease, known as ‘antibodies’, just as would happen when we are exposed to a disease but – crucially – vaccines work without making us sick," Joshi said.
"COVID-19 vaccines help our bodies develop immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 without us having to get the illness."
Can the COVID vaccines alter your DNA?
"mRNA is not able to alter or modify a person’s genetic makeup (DNA). The mRNA from a COVID-19 vaccine never enter the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA are kept," the CDC says. "This means the mRNA does not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. Instead, COVID-19 vaccines that use mRNA work with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop protection (immunity) to disease."
Mayo Clinic also said "injecting messenger RNA into your body will not interact or do anything to the DNA of your cells."
"Human cells break down and get rid of the messenger RNA soon after they have finished using the instructions," the clinic's website reads.