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5 Experts Explain mRNA Vaccines for Non-Science People

Woman receiving a vaccine.

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On December 11, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making it the first widely-available vaccine to use mRNA technology. Moderna’s vaccine, which was granted an EUA by the FDA a week later, will also use the same technology. But mRNA vaccines use a process a bit different than the traditional vaccines we’re used to.

To trigger your immune system, many vaccines inject a weakened or inactivated germ from the virus into our bodies. But mRNA technology instead teaches our cells how to make a protein, or even just a piece of it, that will help our immune systems respond. That immune system response eventually produces antibodies. These antibodies protect us from getting infected and sick if SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, enters our body after vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But what does that mean in layman’s terms? Scientists are trying to answer that. A number of doctors and researchers have taken to social media to share creative explanations on how mRNA technology works. Their metaphors range everywhere from a disappearing Snapchats to that catchy song you currently have on repeat. Here are a few of the most helpful explanations.

Snapchat

The mRNA doesn’t continue to live in your body eternally, Shane Crotty, PhD, vaccine scientist and professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, points out. RNA messages disappear after a short while once the message has been received by the body and your immune response has been built. The immune cells break them down quickly, which Crotty compares to the way a Snapchat message disappears.

Emails

Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, a physician trained in infectious diseases, and epidemiology, and former director of the CDC, thinks of mRNA as either a Snapchat or a deleted email. It doesn’t actually do anything to your immune system or the virus, but rather sends the instructions to your body’s “inbox” to interpret. Then, it gets erased.

A Recipe 

Savannah Sims, a PhD candidate at West Virginia University, compares the process to a chef following a recipe. The mRNA functions as the recipe. The cells inside your body receive the SARS-CoV2 mRNA, and then translate that into a protein, which Sims says is like a chef turning the recipe’s instructions into an actual dish.

Musical Score Sheet 

Nahid Bahdelia, MD, MA, an infectious diseases physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, compared the mRNA process to musical score sheets. When explaining how your cells actually establish a long-lasting immune response, she says they “remember” the song—or the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2—and recognize it as a threat once it enters the body later on, leading to a faster immune response.

Catchiest Part of a Song 

Amar Kelkar, MD, a current fellow at the University of Florida Health division of hematology and oncology, similarly likens mRNA to music. He says mRNA relays the catchiest part of a song. That part of the song, or the protein, in this case, will be so recognizable that your body will be able to detect it later on if the virus enters your body.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. United States Food & Drug Administration. FDA takes key action in fight against COVID-19 by issuing emergency use authorization for first COVID-19 vaccine. Updated December 11, 2020.

  2. United States Food & Drug Administration. FDA takes additional action in fight against COVID-19 by issuing emergency use authorization for second COVID-19 vaccine. Updated December 18, 2020.