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A simple breakdown of mRNA vaccine technology and spike protein

Molecular epidemiologist Dr. Jill Roberts with the USF College of Public Health explains how the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines work.

TAMPA, Fla. — By now, you've heard a lot about the vaccines intended to prevent COVID-19 from developing in your body.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA (messenger RNA), a new technology that relies on the genetic sequence of the spike protein on the outside of the virus. 

Injecting humans with mRNA triggers their immune systems to create antibodies to the spike protein, a.k.a. the very thing the coronavirus needs to attach to a human cell.

All of this information is overwhelming and complex, so we went to Tampa molecular epidemiologist Dr. Jill Roberts at the USF College of Public Health to walk us through exactly how this vaccine works.

Her simple sketch might be one of the best visualizations you see today.

Credit: Dr. Jill Roberts, USF College of Public Health

What are spike proteins?

They're the spiky little receptors on the outside of the coronavirus. Those spikes stick to your cells, allowing the virus to replicate and invade your body.

What is mRNA?

That's the genetic sequence of the receptors. In this instance, scientists determined the mRNA of the spike protein and bottled them up in a vaccine form.

"Within less than one week of having that sequence available, Moderna said OK, we have the sequence, we can build an mRNA vaccine and concept. Within one week, they had that vaccine and they started injecting it into mice. That mice trial went so well that within eight weeks, they were injecting humans," Roberts said.

How does the immune system respond?

Once a human is injected with the mRNA of the coronavirus spike protein, the immune system is disrupted and triggered to produce antibodies. 

What happens when you're exposed to the actual coronavirus?

Your body has already produced antibodies that crush the spike protein or receptors of the virus. The virus is blocked and can't go anywhere.

RELATED: How mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna work to provide COVID-19 protection

RELATED: VERIFY: What is a Messenger RNA vaccine?

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