Despite many conspiracy theories, we do know what ingredients are in each of the Covid-19 vaccines

Mind and Body

What’s in Covid-19 vaccines? Hint: no microchips

A simple breakdown of every ingredient in the Covid-19 vaccines.

Getty/ Andriy Onufriyenko

Vaccine conspiracy theories are nothing new.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and Operation Warp Speed, the most well-known conspiracy theory about vaccines was that the MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) vaccine causes autism (this has been repeatedly debunked). But as early as 1903, the mark from the smallpox vaccine was considered “a mark of the beast” or devil — language parroted by opponents of the Covid-19 vaccine more than a century later.

A mass vaccination campaign was always going to be fodder for the conspiracy-minded. Add a seemingly (but not actually) new technology like mRNA vaccines and some eyebrows are going to be raised.

From microchips to DNA-altering technology, conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccines abound. Adverse reactions to vaccination, which do occur, can further blur the line between critical thought and conspiratorial thinking.

So what is in the Covid-19 vaccines? Whether it's mRNA vaccines like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, or the viral vector vaccine made by Johnson and Johnson, here’s what’s in these jabs and why.

How do mRNA Covid-19 vaccines work?

In both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the only active ingredient is mRNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid.

Although the Covid-19 vaccines are the first time mRNA technology has been in an approved vaccine, the technology is something that scientists have worked on for decades. The pandemic just gave the scientists the resources and energy to get that work over the finish line.

Think of the mRNA molecules in the vaccine as a mail carrier. They contain specific instructions for our immune system. The instructions tell the cells in our arm (because that’s where you get the shot) how to make a viral protein. The viral protein then triggers a natural immune response in our body, just like it would if we were infected with the virus. Because these instructions are so specific, our immune system mounts a more robust antibody response than it would if we’d actually contracted the virus.

A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

This response means our body has fighters ready to attack the virus if we’re exposed. This is why — even if breakthrough infections occur — people who are vaccinated are much less likely to require hospitalization or die from the disease.

Once the mRNA has delivered its instructions to the cells, the body gets rid of it. The conspiracy theories that suggest mRNA can alter DNA are completely unfounded. mRNA vaccines never enter the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is stored. The mail carrier is just putting the mail in the mailbox on the sidewalk outside your house, it never comes inside.

What ingredients are in the mRNA vaccines?

The rest of the ingredients in the mRNA vaccines are called excipients. These are very small amounts of certain ingredients that help the mRNA stay intact and get into cells.

A health worker in Puerto Rico prepares the Moderna vaccine.RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

Lipids are part of this group. Lipids are waxy molecules our body produces that function as chemical messengers and energy storage — they're an effective means of getting something into a cell. So in the analogy of mRNA as a mail carrier, lipids are the mail trucks that allow the mail carriers to get where they need to go.

Pfizer-BioNtech — The lipids that are in the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine are:

  • ((4-hydroxybutyl)azanediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis
  • (2-hexyldecanoate), 2 [(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N,N-ditetradecylacetamide
  • 1,2-Distearoyl-snglycero-3- phosphocholine
  • Cholesterol

One of the lipids used in both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is polyethylene glycol (PEG). This one is important to note because some people are allergic to it. For most people, it’s very safe and commonly used: It’s found in ultrasound jelly and some medications. If you have an allergy to PEG, the CDC advises getting the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which doesn’t contain PEG.

Salt: These salts are included in the Pfizer vaccine. They help balance the acidity in your body.

  • Potassium chloride
  • Monobasic potassium phosphate
  • Sodium chloride
  • Dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate

Sugar: A small amount of sugar, also known as sucralose is in both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This is exactly the same stuff that you might put in your coffee every morning.

It’s used because it helps the mRNA molecules maintain their shape during freezing. You can think of sugar as the safety belt inside the mail truck — it keeps the mail carrier intact during transport.

Moderna — Like the Pfizer vaccine, the only active ingredient in the Moderna mRNA vaccine is mRNA. It also uses many of the same — or extremely similar — excipients.

Lipids: The Moderna vaccine also uses lipids to help deliver the mRNA to the cells.

  • SM-102
  • 1,2-dimyristoyl-rac-glycero3-methoxypolyethylene glycol-2000 [PEG2000-DMG]
  • cholesterol
  • 1,2-distearoyl-snglycero-3-phosphocholine [DSPC]

Like Pfizer, Moderna uses salts and sugars to help stabilize the mRNA but adds acid and two acid stabilizers. They have the same function: helping the mRNA remain intact during freezing and while it delivers its instructions to your cells.

  • Acids: Acetic acid
  • Acid Stabilizers: Tromethamine & Tromethamine hydrochloride
  • Salts: Sodium acetate
  • Sugar: Sucrose

What are the ingredients in the Johnson and Johnson/Janssen vaccine?

The Johnson and Johnson is not an mRNA vaccine. It’s a more traditional vaccine — something called a viral vector vaccine.

A viral vector vaccine uses a modified version of a different virus — in this case, Adenovirus 26. This is a virus that’s harmless and has been modified so it doesn’t replicate in your cells. It can get into your cells on a one-time basis.

A nurse administers the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic for homeless people in Los Angeles, California. Getty

Once the virus is in the cell, the body of the virus disintegrates and the DNA within it travels into the nucleus of the cell, where it’s transcribed into mRNA.

The mRNA produces the coronavirus spike protein, which is how SARS-CoV-2 typically enters the cell. The production of the spike protein triggers an immune response, creating antibodies and other virus-fighting cells to fight off what it thinks is (but isn’t) a coronavirus infection.

Because of this, your body already has some fighters ready to keep you out of the hospital if you are exposed to coronavirus.

The virus does not and can not change our genetic code.

Like the mRNA vaccines, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses various excipients to help stabilize the modified virus until it can get into your cells and start prompting your immune system to create antibodies and other virus-fighting cells. Those excipients include:

  • Acids: citric acid monohydrate
  • Salts: trisodium citrate dihydrate
  • Sugars:
  • 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD)
  • polysorbate-80, sodium chloride
  • Other ingredients: ethanol

Are there preservatives in any of the Covid-19 vaccines?

Nope. There are no eggs, gelatin, latex, or preservatives in any of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Are there metals in any of the Covid-19 vaccines?

Nope, all Covid-19 vaccines are free of “metals such as iron, nickel, cobalt, lithium, rare earth alloys or any manufactured products such as microelectronics, electrodes, carbon nanotubes, or nanowire semiconductors,” according to the CDC. This includes anything one might find in a microchip.

Despite what you may have heard, we do know what’s in the Covid-19 vaccines. Not only that —we understand what each ingredient does. There’s really only one “active” ingredient in each of the vaccines, the other ingredients are just helpers. Sorry, Bill Gates, you’ll have to find another way to track us.

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