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What’s in the coronavirus vaccine, and how could it possibly affect me once I get it?

Local expert answers all your questions, quells fears with information

SAN ANTONIO - – Excitement is mounting as coronavirus vaccines are getting ready for distribution after they’re approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

However, people also have some concerns about what the vaccine contains, its side effects and when they’ll be able to get it.

Local infectious disease expert Dr. Ruth Berggren, with UT Health San Antonio, said learning about the vaccine may quell any fears of the unknown.

The current coronavirus vaccines, including those made by Pfizer and Moderna, were created in record time by utilizing a method never done before.

“I think people are hung up on that and really scared of it, but the technology has been around since at least 1990. Don’t be afraid. It’s ideal because this technology allows us to ramp up vaccine production very, very quickly in massive quantities. The more traditional approaches to making vaccines are more cumbersome and slower,” Berggren said.

The current coronavirus vaccine focuses on mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is found in your body. It does not inject the live virus into your body.

“So think of it like this: The mRNA, the messenger, is going to find these 3D printers in your cells. And the mRNA has the code, and it goes and tells the 3D printer what kind of protein it wants it to make. And in this case, the mRNA is telling your 3D printer to make a protein that looks exactly like that spiky thing on the outside of the COVID virus,” Berggren said. “So now you have pieces of your own cell teaching other cells how to fight an enemy that looks like that.”

Berggren wants to be very clear that injecting your body with mRNA does not in any way affect your DNA.

“The mRNA that’s being injected doesn’t hang around. It goes in, tells the 3D printing machinery what to do and it gets the heck out. Your own cell is going to act like Pacman, destroy the mRNA, but only after it’s delivered its message,” she said.

As for side effects of the vaccine, Berggren said they’re similar to those of a flu shot.

“You can expect local soreness. You might even get a little bit of redness, a little bit of warmth. You may feel achy. You may have a low-grade fever. These symptoms are expected to last no more than 24 or 48 hours,” she said.

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Berggren said most side effects of any vaccine are going to be apparent within about six weeks.

“And that is why we can feel confident. The vaccines have been in clinical trials for months, and we’re not seeing extraordinary or strange reactions. There could be rare individuals, one in a million, who have something more serious happen because of something quirky in their immune system. However, we already have good safety data that if this is going to happen, it’s going to be very, very rare,” she said.

Both vaccines will come in two rounds, so people will need to get another shot either 21 or 28 days after the first.

Berggren said it might be uncomfortable or inconvenient, but she wants people to trust that the vaccine is worth it.

“I have been rounding on the hospital wards all through this Thanksgiving period, and I have had a front-row seat to see what this nasty virus can do, and it is very frightening,” she said. “Everyone who gets it doesn’t get it bad. It’s the minority. But I am here to tell you I have seen this virus do horrible things to people in their 40s, people who are not massively overweight, people who do not have diabetes, people who come in in a timely way, do everything they’re supposed to do and things still don’t go well for them.”

Berggren said when she’s finally allowed to get the vaccine, she won’t waste a minute.

The distribution is coming in phases:

  • People on front lines (doctors, EMTs, nurses, etc.)
  • Elderly people in nursing homes
  • Adults with risk factors like diabetes or heart, kidney or lung disease
  • Adults over 64
  • All other adults (likely by the spring)

“People that have particular conditions, pregnancy or, let’s say, autoimmune or inflammatory disease like MS, those are populations that have not been studied by the vaccine, so for those individuals, they should be consulting with their doctor,” Berggren said.

Children were also not included in the trial. Berggren said a vaccine for kids wouldn’t be available until months later.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be stored at freezing temperatures. Once they are taken out, they will only be good for a short time.

So when it’s your turn to get the vaccine, Berggren says to make an appointment and don’t show up late.

Have questions? Let us know in the prompt below and join KSAT.com on Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. for a livestream special on vaccines.


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