Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine.

This article was updated on Jan. 20, 2021

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists worldwide have been working to find treatments and cures.

Below are some frequently asked questions about vaccines and the status of COVID-19 vaccines.

What Is a Vaccine?

Simply put, a vaccine can prevent disease. When you get a vaccine for a certain disease, it stimulates your immune system to create antibodies against the disease. Those antibodies can give you immunity against a disease without ever becoming sick.

Vaccines have been around for more than 200 years, and there are currently vaccines for more than 20 life-threatening diseases. According to the World Health Organization, vaccines prevent the death of between 2 million and 3 million people each year.

Where Do Vaccines Come From?

From scientific study and research. Scientists study an infectious disease in the laboratory and break down its components. They attempt to find out what component causes the disease. They then create a vaccine to neutralize the disease-causing portions. The goal is for a vaccine to be both safe for people who get it and effective at preventing the disease.

Vaccines go through extensive clinical trials to determine their safety and effectiveness — first in animals, then in humans. The FDA monitors the trials. If a vaccine is shown to be both safe and effective, the FDA can approve the vaccine for widespread use in humans.

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What Is the Status of the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Multiple COVID-19 vaccines are under development. On Dec. 12, the FDA approved use of a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech. This vaccine is now being distributed to frontline health care workers.

Another COVID-19 vaccine produced by Moderna is expected to be approved and distributed later this month, following a formal FDA review.

Other vaccine candidates are in the clinical trial phase and could seek FDA approval for use in the future.

What Is an Emergency Use Authorization?

During a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA can issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for medical treatments that have not yet received final approval. One COVID-19 vaccine, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, has received an EUA.

Manufacturers can submit a request for an EUA to the FDA. The FDA evaluates the EUA request on several criteria, including the safety and effectiveness of the treatment. If the treatment is shown to be safe and effective, and if there are no other adequate approved treatments, the FDA can issue the EUA.

While an EUA means a treatment can be used during an emergency, that does not mean the treatment has final, full FDA approval. The regular clinical trial and approval process will continue even after an EUA is issued.

When Can I Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidance to states about which groups should get the vaccine and when. Hospital systems like UPMC are working alongside state officials to offer vaccination.

Right now, Pennsylvania is in phase 1a of vaccination. This phase includes vaccinating health care workers, senior communities residents, those older than 65, and others. For more, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Health website. Vaccine access will expand in the coming weeks and months.

Do I Need to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

A vaccine is the best way to reach herd immunity against COVID. Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a population is immune to the disease, which can slow or stop the disease’s spread.

Scientists estimate that 70% to 90% of the population will need to become immune to COVID-19 for herd immunity to be reached. For that to happen, getting the vaccine is crucial.

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe?

All reported data on the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna suggest their vaccines are safe.

All vaccine candidates are rigorously monitored for safety during the trial and approval process. For the FDA to approve a vaccine candidate for use, the manufacturer must prove it is safe in humans. The potential benefit must outweigh the risk.

Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have reported no significant side effects with their vaccines. These vaccine candidates and others will continue to be monitored for long-term side effects and other safety concerns.

Does the COVID-19 Vaccine Work?

The goal of the COVID-19 vaccine is to prevent the disease. No vaccine is 100% effective. However, both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have reported that their vaccines are more than 94% effective in preventing COVID-19. Those figures far exceed FDA requirements for vaccine effectiveness.

How Does the COVID-19 Vaccine Work?

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines include messenger RNA (mRNA). Vaccines with mRNA give your body instructions on how to fight the disease — in this case, COVID-19.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two doses, given weeks apart, to be effective.

Will UPMC Be Providing the COVID-19 Vaccine?

UPMC is currently working on a vaccine distribution plan with federal and state health officials. We expect to receive an allocation of the vaccines as they are approved and become available. We will follow CDC and state guidance on the distribution schedule.

At least one of the vaccine candidates requires storage at extremely cold temperatures. We have deep freezers available for storage and can explore getting more if needed.

UPMC has the resources and expertise to distribute the vaccine safely and effectively to the communities we serve. When the vaccine is available, we will be ready.

Sources

Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Vaccines: The Basics. Link

Food and Drug Administration, Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained. Link

Denise Grady, New York Times, Early Data Show Moderna's Coronavirus Vaccine Is 94.5% Effective. Link

Lena H. Sun and Isaac Stanley-Becker, Washington Post, Health Care Workers and Nursing Home Residents Should Be the First to Get Coronavirus Vaccines, CDC Advisory Group Says. Link

Katie Thomas, New York Times, New Pfizer Results: Coronavirus Vaccine Is Safe and 95% Effective. Link

World Health Organization, Vaccines and Immunization. Link

About UPMC

A $21 billion health care provider and insurer, Pittsburgh-based UPMC is inventing new models of patient-centered, cost-effective, accountable care. The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates more than 90,000 employees, 40 hospitals, 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, and a 3.8 million-member Insurance Services Division, the largest medical insurer in western Pennsylvania. In the most recent fiscal year, UPMC contributed $1.4 billion in benefits to its communities, including more care to the region’s most vulnerable citizens than any other health care institution, and paid more than $500 million in federal, state, and local taxes. Working in close collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC shares its clinical, managerial, and technological skills worldwide through its innovation and commercialization arm, UPMC Enterprises, and through UPMC International. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside on its annual Honor Roll of America’s Best Hospitals and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. For more information, go to UPMC.com.