Here’s what the COVID-19 vaccine is made of

What is the COVID vaccine made of
Photo via Tony Webster/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 21, 2021

With at least five major players for the COVID-19 vaccine in the market—AstraZeneca, Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and NovaVax— keeping track of what’s in each formula can seem an impossible task. But for those who could have an allergic reaction to the vaccine they’re given—or if someone has vaccine hesitancy—it’s worth knowing what the COVID vaccine is made of before you roll up your sleeve for the shot. 

Especially now that kids between the ages of 12-15 can begin receiving it and kids under the age of 12 are in vaccine trials.

Vaccine ingredients have stoked the fires of controversy for years, leading to anti-vaccination movements which have not spared the COVID-19 vaccines from analysis and heavy criticism. Immunological and vaccine experts are stating that this vaccine is safe after undergoing multiple trials, despite potential side effects.

STAT News broke down the ingredients of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, showing that it has a condensed list of:

  • messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA): This is a section of the coronavirus RNA, which is used to provoke an immune response in the human body, conferring immunity from future infections of that virus. In particular, the section used in the COVID-19 vaccine is the “spike protein,” which only the SARS-Cov-2 has. This protein is what helps a human immune system develop and produce antibodies as an immune response.
  • Lipids including ((4-hydroxybutyl)azanediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis(2-hexyldecanoate), 2 [(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N,N-ditetradecylacetamide, 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3- phosphocholine, and cholesterol): These lipid droplets, according to Reuters, help transport the working parts of the vaccine to the human body, allowing an immune response to occur. 
  • Potassium chloride, Sodium chloride, Monobasic potassium phosphate, Dibasic sodium phosphate dehydrate, Sucrose: Salts and sugars are common ingredients in food items. They are present in many vaccines, including those for the rotavirus and influenza strains. These salts and sugars help keep the viral particles viable until they are injected.

The FDA lists ingredients of the Moderna vaccine as:

  • mRNA: Similar to the Pfizer vaccine, this is a section of COVID-19 virus RNA, which instructs a cell to copy it and produce more of the virus in the human body and produce an immune response.
  • lipids (SM-102, polyethylene glycol [PEG] 2000 dimyristoyl glycerol [DMG], cholesterol, and 1,2-distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine [DSPC]): These lipids, like the Pfizer vaccine, serve to transport the viral particles.
  • Tromethamine, tromethamine hydrochloride: It’s not clear from FDA explanations of vaccine excipients, or ingredients which make up a very small amount of a vaccine, what Tromethamine does in the COVID-19 vaccine specifically. However, it is an amino alcohol which can be used to balance pH levels in the human body.
  • Acetic acid, sodium acetate, and sucrose: These ingredients serve to stabilize the vaccine.

At the end of February, the FDA gave emergency approval to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but that version of the vaccine has fallen far behind Moderna and Pfizer in the U.S.

According to the FDA, here are the ingredients in the newest approved vaccine: “recombinant, replication-incompetent adenovirus type 26 expressing the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, citric acid monohydrate, trisodium citrate dihydrate, ethanol, 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD), polysorbate-80, sodium chloride.”

Perhaps the biggest question people have when wondering what the COVID vaccine is made of is whether they should get the vaccine and making sure it’s safe. Here’s how the BBC answered: “There is overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination is the best defense against serious infections. COVID vaccines appear to stop people getting very sick and could save lives. It is not yet clear how much protection vaccines might give in terms of stopping people from spreading COVID. If they can do this well, vaccinating enough people would stamp out the disease.”

Plus, even if you have seasonal allergies, you should still get the vaccine.

There’s also a possibility that Novavax and its 90% efficacy could be approved for use in the U.S. later in 2021.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccines:

Sources: STAT News, CDC, Reuters, Health, FDA, FDA Vaccine Excipients, The Lancet, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, BBC

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