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What to know about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

A gloved hand draws vaccine into a syringe from a vial in front of an image of the coronavirus.

The first coronavirus vaccine was OK'd for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 11. The vaccine was made by Pfizer and BioNTech. And it's a big step forward in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some important questions and answers about this new vaccine. (See information about the Moderna vaccine.)

Q. How does the vaccine work?

A. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine contains genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA). This small piece of the coronavirus's mRNA orders the cells in your body to make copies of a distinctive but harmless spike protein that appears on the surface of the coronavirus. These spike proteins trigger an immune reaction. Your body creates antibodies, which then protect you from getting sick if you're exposed to the real virus later.

It's important to note that the vaccine doesn't contain the real coronavirus. So getting the vaccine cannot give you COVID-19.

Q. How many shots are given and how far apart?

A. This vaccine requires two shots given three weeks apart.

Q. How long after getting your shots does it take to be effective?

A. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it usually takes a few weeks for immunity to develop after any vaccine. Trial data suggest that this vaccine starts to offer some protection about 14 days after the first shot. 

Q. How effective was the vaccine in clinical trials?

A. The vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials. That's very good. FDA's benchmark was an efficacy rate of 50%.

It is not yet clear how long the vaccine will provide protection or whether it prevents someone from spreading the virus. So it will be important for those who get the vaccine to continue taking other safety precautions.

Q. What was its safety record in clinical trials?

A. Researchers looked at safety data broken down by:

  • Age.
  • Race.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Underlying medical conditions.
  • Previous COVID-19 infections.

There were no safety concerns. Serious adverse events occurred in similar numbers among people who got the vaccine and those who got a placebo.

Q. What were the most common side effects?

A. The most common side effects among those who got the vaccine were similar to other vaccines, such as:

  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Chills.
  • Injection site pain.

These reactions were more likely to be reported after people got the second of the two vaccine doses.

Q. Who is the vaccine authorized for?

A. The vaccine is authorized for people 16 years and older. It has not yet been tested in younger children, pregnant women or people with weak immune systems.

Q. Who can get the vaccine?

A. States set their own rules for distributing the vaccine. But CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that healthcare workers and residents of longterm care facilities be the first to get the vaccine.

They recommend that it be made available next to: 

  • Frontline essential workers.
  • Older adults.
  • Younger adults with underlying medical conditions.
  • Other essential workers.

Check with your local health department to find out whether the vaccine is available to you yet.

Q. Who should not get the vaccine?

A. You should not get the vaccine if:

  • You have had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient of this vaccine.
  • You have had a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of this vaccine.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor about whether to be vaccinated.

You can find much more information about COVID-19 in our Coronavirus health topic center.

Reviewed 2/22/2021

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