What’s the Difference Between a Vaccine and a Treatment for Coronavirus?



What You Need to Know

  • Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response inside our bodies.
  • Like all vaccines, mRNA vaccines benefit people who get vaccinated by giving them protection against diseases like COVID-19 without risking the potentially serious consequences of getting sick.
  • mRNA vaccines are newly available to the public. However, researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines for decades.
  • The same COVID-19 mRNA vaccine product should be used for both doses of a two-dose primary series and for an additional primary dose, if needed. However, any of the COVID-19 vaccines can be used for a booster dose. The booster dose product does not need to match the product used for the primary series.
  • Learn more about getting your vaccine.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are messenger RNA vaccines also called mRNA vaccines. mRNA vaccines are some of the first COVID-19 vaccines authorized and approved for use in the United States.

How mRNA Vaccines Work

To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, mRNA vaccines use mRNA created in a laboratory to teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.

  1. First, COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are given in the upper arm muscle. The mRNA will enter the muscle cells and instruct the cells’ machinery to produce a harmless piece of what is called the spike protein. The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. After the protein piece is made, our cells break down the mRNA and remove it.
  2. Next, our cells display the spike protein piece on their surface. Our immune system recognizes that the protein doesn’t belong there. This triggers our immune system to produce antibodies and activate other immune cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection. This is what your body might do to fight off the infection if you got sick with COVID-19.
  3. At the end of the process, our bodies have learned how to protect against future infection from the virus that causes COVID-19. The benefit of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is that those vaccinated gain this protection without ever having to risk the potentially serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19. Any temporary discomfort experienced after getting the vaccine is a natural part of the process and an indication that the vaccine is working.



Lydia Ramsey Pflanzer Apr 30, 2020, 12:58 AM

Scientists are racing to find ways to prevent and treat the novel coronavirus

That includes developing vaccines to prevent the disease, as well as testing out new or repurposed medications in the hopes that they might help patients severely ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, recover. 

Vaccines prepare the body’s immune system to fight off a disease, ideally preventing people from falling ill.Treatments are typically used when patients are already sick with a certain disease, or sometimes as a way to prevent the onset of an illness. 

There are a number of vaccines and treatments in development for the novel coronavirus.

Vaccines are used to prepare the body’s immune system to fight off infections. They work by giving the body a small taste of what the virus is like so that way it can produce antibodies that fight off an intruding virus, ideally keeping people from falling ill. Some vaccines protect better than others, and they’re typically administered across broad populations. 

Treatments, on the other hand, are meant to do just that: treat COVID-19, helping patients sickened by the virus survive and recover more quickly. Treatments for disease are there to lessen symptoms and ultimately improve the outcomes of a particular disease.

Sometimes, medications can be used preventatively. For instance, patients with high cholesterol might be prescribed a medication called a statin to prevent heart attacks. Some potential coronavirus treatments are being studied to see if they can prevent people from contracting the virus in the first place.

Treatments, especially for hospitalized patients, are critical to develop to provide more tools for doctors to treat the disease. Ultimately, as social distancing measures lessen, it’ll keep hospitals from being overrun with patients who tend to be hospitalized for weeks.



naturenature reviews drug discoveryreview articles

mRNA vaccines — a new era in vaccinology

Nature Reviews Drug Discovery volume 17, pages 261–279 (2018)

Key Points

  • Recent improvements in mRNA vaccines act to increase protein translation, modulate innate and adaptive immunogenicity and improve delivery.
  • mRNA vaccines have elicited potent immunity against infectious disease targets in animal models of influenza virus, Zika virus, rabies virus and others, especially in recent years, using lipid-encapsulated or naked forms of sequence-optimized mRNA.
  • Diverse approaches to mRNA cancer vaccines, including dendritic cell vaccines and various types of directly injectable mRNA, have been employed in numerous cancer clinical trials, with some promising results showing antigen-specific T cell responses and prolonged disease-free survival in some cases.
  • Therapeutic considerations and challenges include scaling up good manufacturing practice (GMP) production, establishing regulations, further documenting safety and increasing efficacy.
  • Important future directions of research will be to compare and elucidate the immune pathways activated by various mRNA vaccine platforms, to improve current approaches based on these mechanisms and to initiate new clinical trials against additional disease targets.


mRNA vaccines represent a promising alternative to conventional vaccine approaches because of their high potency, capacity for rapid development and potential for low-cost manufacture and safe administration. However, their application has until recently been restricted by the instability and inefficient in vivo delivery of mRNA. Recent technological advances have now largely overcome these issues, and multiple mRNA vaccine platforms against infectious diseases and several types of cancer have demonstrated encouraging results in both animal models and humans. This Review provides a detailed overview of mRNA vaccines and considers future directions and challenges in advancing this promising vaccine platform to widespread therapeutic use.



naturenature reviews drug discoveryreview articles

  1. article

mRNA-based therapeutics — developing a new class of drugs

Nature Reviews Drug Discovery volume 13, pages 759–780 (2014)Cite this article

Key Points

  • Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a pivotal molecule of life, involved in almost all aspects of cell biology.
  • As the subject of basic and applied research for more than 5 decades, mRNA has only recently come into the focus as a potentially powerful drug class able to deliver genetic information.
  • Synthetic mRNA can be engineered to resemble mature and processed mRNA molecules as they occur naturally in the cytoplasm of eukaryotic cells and to transiently deliver proteins.
  • Recent advances addressed challenges inherent to this drug class and provided the basis for a broad spectrum of applications
  • Besides cancer immunotherapies and infectious disease vaccines novel approaches such as in vivo delivery of mRNA to replace or supplement proteins, mRNA-based induction of pluripotent stem cells, or mRNA-assisted delivery of designer nucleases for genome engineering rapidly emerged and entered into pharmaceutical development.
  • This Review gives a comprehensive overview of the current state of mRNA drug technologies, their applications and crucial aspects relevant to mRNA based drug discovery and development.


In vitro transcribed (IVT) mRNA has recently come into focus as a potential new drug class to deliver genetic information. Such synthetic mRNA can be engineered to transiently express proteins by structurally resembling natural mRNA. Advances in addressing the inherent challenges of this drug class, particularly related to controlling the translational efficacy and immunogenicity of the IVTmRNA, provide the basis for a broad range of potential applications. mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies and infectious disease vaccines have entered clinical development. Meanwhile, emerging novel approaches include in vivo delivery of IVT mRNA to replace or supplement proteins, IVT mRNA-based generation of pluripotent stem cells and genome engineering using IVT mRNA-encoded designer nucleases. This Review provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of mRNA-based drug technologies and their applications, and discusses the key challenges and opportunities in developing these into a new class of drugs.



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