Vaccines 101: Everything You Need to Know About The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout underway across the country, you might be able to get your shot soon. We know you probably have questions, so our pharmacists have answered everything you might be wondering below. 

1. What vaccines are available in the U.S.?

Currently, there are two vaccines with emergency use approval in the U.S.: Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Two other vaccines, one from Oxford-AstraZeneca and one from Johnson & Johnson, are under development but not yet approved for use in the U.S.

2. Is one of the vaccines better than the other? 

While there are slight differences between the Pfizer-BioNTech-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine, both are safe and effective. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective against COVID-19 after two doses, and the Moderna one is close behind at 94%. Both have undergone rigorous safety testing and received emergency use authorization from the U.S. FDA. 

We’ve broken down the differences below: 

  • Age: The Pfizer-BioNTech-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for age 16 years and up, whereas the Moderna vaccine has been approved for 18 years and older. 
  • Second dose: For the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, patients need to get their second dose approximately 21 days after the first. For the Moderna vaccine, that period is 28 days. 
  • Storage: The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at much cooler temperatures than the Moderna vaccine. This doesn’t affect you getting vaccinated, but it does make the logistics of shipping and storing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine more complicated than the Moderna one. 

3. Can I choose which vaccine to get? 

No. Due to limited supplies and the complicated nature of the vaccine rollout, you are unlikely to be able to choose. The good news is that both vaccines are safe and effective against COVID-19. 

4. When can I get the vaccine? 

It depends. Every state has a slightly different rollout plan for the vaccines. Your spot in line is also linked to your occupation, age, and health risks. Many states are rolling out the vaccine to healthcare workers first, essential and frontline workers, and those who are at higher risk of COVID-19 (such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions like diabetes and cancer). 

Please check the CDC website or your local government website for up to date information regarding your eligibility. We know this can be confusing, but rest assured that everyone who wants to get vaccinated will eventually be able to do so. Until it’s your turn, just continue to keep yourself safe by wearing a mask, washing your hands, and social distancing. 

5. How does the second dose work? What happens if I miss it? 

You should get your second dose 21 days after if you’re getting Pfizer-BioNTech-BioNTech’s vaccine or 28 days after if you’re getting Moderna’s vaccine. There is approximately a 7-day window for you to receive your second dose. Even if you are outside of the 7-day window, it is still highly recommended that you get the second dose because the efficacy of the vaccine drops significantly when you only receive one dose. 

6. These vaccines were created really fast. Does that mean they aren’t safe? 

Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were created very quickly. However, this does not mean they are any less safe or effective. A lot of the mistrust of these two vaccines stems from a lack of understanding regarding how the vaccine development process works. 

Typically, vaccines take around 10 years to be developed. However, a lot of this time is due to administrative obstacles, protocols, and funding limitations. Regarding administrative protocols, the FDA normally has to deal with countless research applications from drug companies, which can slow down the review and approval process. In this case, the FDA prioritized reviewing and, if safe, approving COVID-19 vaccines by granting them Emergency Use Authorization. This is typically only reserved for situations like the current pandemic when the country is facing a national emergency. 

Funding is another obstacle that normally gets in the way of fast medical research. That’s why the government offered contracts and pre-bought vaccine doses so that these medical companies were able to take more financial risk and pursue developing a vaccine. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies often face difficulty in finding enough people to volunteer for research trials and studies. However, since so much of the population has been infected by COVID-19, both companies were easily able to find enough volunteers to conduct large-scale studies of their vaccines. 

By eliminating these variables due to the urgent nature of the pandemic, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were able to develop a vaccine much faster than normal. Additionally, the technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine—called mRNA— is not new and has been around for decades. 

7. How exactly does the mRNA technology work? 

mRNA stands for messenger RNA, and it refers to the way the vaccine works in your body. Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine contain synthetic mRNA that teaches our bodies how to produce and fight proteins similar to the ones found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. That way, if the real COVID-19 infects you, your body will be more prepared to fight it. 

8. Can the vaccine give me COVID-19? 

No, it can’t. That’s because of the way this mRNA technology works differently from other vaccines. For example, the flu vaccine actually introduces a small amount of the flu into your system to teach your body how to fight against it. With mRNA vaccines, your body learns how to recognize viruses without actually having to encounter the virus itself. In other words, since there is no live COVID-19 virus in the vaccine, it cannot make you sick with COVID-19. 

9. What are some side effects of the vaccine? 

Both vaccines can cause some short-term side effects such as pain,  swelling, and a rash near the injection site, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache. Not everyone will experience side effects, but if you do, rest assured that they are all completely normal. They mean that your body is building up protection against the virus and should resolve within 1 to 3 days. You can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen if you are feeling discomfort or pain. You can also apply a wet, clean, and cool washcloth to the vaccination site to help with the discomfort in your arm. Additionally, try moving your arm gently and continuously throughout the day. And make sure to drink a lot of fluids!

10. What about long-term side effects? 

Because these vaccines were so recently developed, scientists have not been able to perform long-term studies to see if there are any long-term side effects from the vaccines. That being said, medical experts think it is unlikely. Long-term side effects from vaccines are rare and they typically occur within the first 6 weeks of a dose. Volunteers from the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trials were monitored for 2 months after receiving the vaccine, and no serious, long-term side effects were noted. Additionally, mRNA technology has been in other vaccines before COVID-19. In 2009, it was tested on a group of patients with prostate cancer, and in 2013, it was used in a clinical trial for a rabies vaccine. Overall, neither group showed long term side effects and the technology is deemed safe. 

The most serious side effect recorded, and the only one that can require hospitalization, is anaphylaxis. This means a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine. While this is very rare, medical experts will monitor you for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine in the highly unlikely case this happens. 

Ultimately, when compared to the known long-term side effects of contracting COVID-19 (including heart damage, fatigue, brain fog, and others), doctors strongly recommend getting vaccinated as soon as you can. 

11. Is the vaccine safe for pregnant women?

Generally speaking, pregnant women are not often included in scientific studies given the risk posed to themselves and the baby. As a result, there is currently no safety data on the use of either vaccine for pregnant women since the studies did not include pregnant populations. However, it is highly recommended that pregnant people get vaccinated since they are at higher risk of complications due to COVID-19. Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are planning to study this further. In general, vaccines are considered safe and even encouraged in pregnant patients. 

12. Will I still be contagious after the vaccine? Can I stop wearing a mask? 

It takes several weeks to build immunity so there is a possibility to contract/pass on COVID-19 after receiving the vaccine, especially if you have only received one dose of the two-dose vaccines. Because of this, you should continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing. 

The CDC says that it’s a few weeks after the second dose of the vaccine that you are fully protected. 

13. How much will the vaccine cost? 

Good news: you won’t have to pay anything to get vaccinated against COVID-19! The vaccine will be provided for free—no matter which vaccine you get and whether or not you have health insurance. 

14. Will the vaccine alter my DNA?

No, it will not. The vaccine does not alter or enter the nucleus of your cells in any way, which is where your DNA is kept.

15. Can we trust the Moderna vaccine if they’ve never released a pharmaceutical product until now?

Moderna was founded in 2010 to work on drug discovery, drug development, and vaccine technology based exclusively on mRNA, the same technology now used in both available vaccines. For the past two years, the company has focused on vaccine development. While it’s true this is their first pharmaceutical product to be released to the general public, this is largely because they are a fairly new company when it comes to the pharmacy world. With the COVID-19 vaccine, they were able to apply research they had already been doing for a decade. And just like the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, they had to follow the same strict safety protocols and rigorous testing.

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