The Science Behind The Historic Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA Vaccine : Short Wave : NPR

Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

Mark Lennihan/AP


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Mark Lennihan/AP

Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

Mark Lennihan/AP

As we surpassed 300,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., there was one small bright spot just days earlier: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was granted emergency use authorization by the FDA. It is the first widely-available vaccine to use something called mRNA technology.

How it works

After the vaccine is injected into a person’s arm, the muscle cells will essentially swallow the mRNA, bringing it into the cell. From there, our body uses mRNA to make a coronavirus protein that your immune system can recognize and respond to. After getting the vaccine, if you are exposed to the real coronavirus, antibodies can recognize that protein, grab on to it, and keep the virus from getting into our cells.

How it was developed

As epidemiologist Rene Najera explains, while this is the first time a vaccine with this technology has been authorized, the technology is not new. The speed was also enabled by the global scientific community: pretty much as soon as the genetic sequence for the virus was released in January of this year, scientists across the globe began working on vaccines. It also helps that this particular vaccine is easier for scientists to make in the lab compared to others like the flu vaccine.

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This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, fact-checked by Ariela Zebede and edited by Viet Le and Gisele Grayson. Alex Drewenskus was the audio engineer this episode.

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