Different types of COVID-19 vaccines: How they work

Curious about how mRNA vaccines and other types of COVID-19 vaccines can help you develop immunity to the COVID-19 virus? Understand how different technologies work with the immune system to provide protection.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

A coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine can prevent you from getting COVID-19 or from becoming seriously ill or dying due to COVID-19. But how do the different types of COVID-19 vaccines work?

Each COVID-19 vaccine causes the immune system to create antibodies to fight COVID-19. COVID-19 vaccines make use of a spikelike structure on the surface of the COVID-19 virus called an S protein. The S protein helps the COVID-19 virus get inside your cells and start an infection.

The main types of COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S. or being studied include:

  • Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. This type of vaccine uses genetically engineered mRNA to give your cells instructions for how to make the S protein found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. After vaccination, your immune cells begin making the S protein pieces and displaying them on cell surfaces. This causes your body to create antibodies. If you later become infected with the COVID-19 virus, these antibodies will fight the virus.

    After delivering instructions, the mRNA is immediately broken down. It never enters the nucleus of your cells, where your DNA is kept. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA.

  • Vector vaccine. In this type of vaccine, genetic material from the COVID-19 virus is placed in a modified version of a different virus (viral vector). When the viral vector gets into your cells, it delivers genetic material from the COVID-19 virus that gives your cells instructions to make copies of the S protein. Once your cells display the S proteins on their surfaces, your immune system responds by creating antibodies and defensive white blood cells. If you later become infected with the COVID-19 virus, the antibodies will fight the virus.

    Viral vector vaccines can't cause you to become infected with the COVID-19 virus or the viral vector virus. Also, the genetic material that's delivered doesn't become part of your DNA. The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is a vector vaccine. AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford also have a vector COVID-19 vaccine.

  • Protein subunit vaccine. Subunit vaccines include only the parts of a virus that best stimulate your immune system. This type of COVID-19 vaccine contains harmless S proteins. Once your immune system recognizes the S proteins, it creates antibodies and defensive white blood cells. If you later become infected with the COVID-19 virus, the antibodies will fight the virus.

    Novavax is working on a protein subunit COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization to the Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that use of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine continue in the U.S. because the benefits outweigh the risks. If you are given this vaccine, you should be educated about the possible risks and symptoms of a blood clotting problem. More types of vaccines are expected to be authorized for use in the coming months.

Check with your local health department for the latest information on how and when you can receive a vaccine.

May 29, 2021 See more In-depth

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