How Pfizer’s Vaccine Works







The German company BioNTech partnered with Pfizer to develop and test a coronavirus vaccine known as BNT162b2. A clinical trial demonstrated that the vaccine has an efficacy rate of 95 percent in preventing Covid-19.

A Piece of the Coronavirus

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is studded with proteins that it uses to enter human cells. These so-called spike proteins make a tempting target for potential vaccines and treatments.






Spike

protein

gene

Spike

protein

gene

CORONAVIRUS


Like the Moderna vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is based on the virus’s genetic instructions for building the spike protein.

mRNA Inside an Oily Shell

The vaccine uses messenger RNA, genetic material that our cells read to make proteins. The molecule — called mRNA for short — is fragile and would be chopped to pieces by our natural enzymes if it were injected directly into the body. To protect their vaccine, Pfizer and BioNTech wrap mRNA in oily bubbles made of lipid nanoparticles.






Lipid

nanoparticles

surrounding

mRNA

Lipid nanoparticles

surrounding mRNA


Because of their fragility, the mRNA molecules will quickly fall apart at room temperature. Pfizer is building special containers with dry ice, thermal sensors and GPS trackers to ensure the vaccines can be transported at -94 degrees Fahrenheit to stay viable.

Entering a Cell

After injection, the vaccine particles bump into cells and fuse to them, releasing mRNA. The cell’s molecules read its sequence and build spike proteins. The mRNA from the vaccine is eventually destroyed by the cell, leaving no permanent trace.






VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes

VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes

VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes

VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes

VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes

VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes

VACCINE

PARTICLES

VACCINATED

CELL

Spike

protein

Translating mRNA

Three spike

proteins combine

Cell

nucleus

Spikes

and protein

fragments

Displaying

spike protein

fragments

Protruding

spikes


Some of the spike proteins form spikes that migrate to the surface of the cell and stick out their tips. The vaccinated cells also break up some of the proteins into fragments, which they present on their surface. These protruding spikes and spike protein fragments can then be recognized by the immune system.

Spotting the Intruder

When a vaccinated cell dies, the debris will contain many spike proteins and protein fragments, which can then be taken up by a type of immune cell called an antigen-presenting cell.






Debris from

a dead cell

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Engulfing

a spike

Digesting

proteins

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

HELPER

T-CELL

Debris from

a dead cell

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Engulfing

a spike

Digesting

the proteins

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

HELPER

T-CELL

Debris from

a dead cell

Engulfing

a spike

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Digesting

the proteins

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

HELPER

T-CELL


The cell presents fragments of the spike protein on its surface. When other cells called helper T-cells detect these fragments, the helper T-cells can raise the alarm and help marshal other immune cells to fight the infection.

Making Antibodies

Other immune cells, called B-cells, may bump into the coronavirus spikes and protein fragments on the surface of vaccinated cells. A few of the B-cells may be able to lock onto the spike proteins. If these B-cells are then activated by helper T-cells, they will start to proliferate and pour out antibodies that target the spike protein.






HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

SECRETED

ANTIBODIES

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

SECRETED

ANTIBODIES

HELPER

T-CELL

VACCINATED

CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

SECRETED

ANTIBODIES

HELPER

T-CELL

VACCINATED

CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

SECRETED

ANTIBODIES

HELPER

T-CELL

VACCINATED

CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

SECRETED

ANTIBODIES

HELPER

T-CELL

VACCINATED

CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

SECRETED

ANTIBODIES

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface

proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface

proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface

proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

HELPER

T-CELL

Activating

the B-cell

Matching

surface proteins

VACCINATED

CELL

VACCINATED

CELL


Stopping the Virus

The antibodies can latch onto coronavirus spikes, mark the virus for destruction and prevent infection by blocking the spikes from attaching to other cells.






ANTIBODIES

ANTIBODIES

ANTIBODIES


Killing Infected Cells

The antigen-presenting cells can also activate another type of immune cell called a killer T-cell to seek out and destroy any coronavirus-infected cells that display the spike protein fragments on their surfaces.






ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

INFECTED

CELL

Beginning

to kill the

infected cell

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

INFECTED

CELL

Beginning

to kill the

infected cell

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

INFECTED

CELL

Beginning

to kill the

infected cell

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL

ANTIGEN-

PRESENTING

CELL

Presenting a

spike protein

fragment

ACTIVATED

KILLER

T-CELL

Beginning to kill

the infected cell

INFECTED

CELL


Remembering the Virus

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two injections, given 21 days apart, to prime the immune system well enough to fight off the coronavirus. But because the vaccine is so new, researchers don’t know how long its protection might last.






First dose

Second dose

21 days later

First dose

Second dose

21 days later

First dose

Second dose

21 days later


It’s possible that in the months after vaccination, the number of antibodies and killer T-cells will drop. But the immune system also contains special cells called memory B-cells and memory T-cells that might retain information about the coronavirus for years or even decades.

For more about the vaccine, see Pfizer’s Covid Vaccine: 11 Things You Need to Know.

Vaccine Timeline

January, 2020 BioNTech begins work on a vaccine after Dr. Ugur Sahin, one of the company’s founders, becomes convinced that the coronavirus will spread from China into a pandemic.

March BioNTech and Pfizer agree to collaborate.

May The companies launch a Phase 1/2 trial on two versions of a mRNA vaccine. One version, known as BNT162b2, had fewer side effects.

July 22 The Trump administration awards a $1.9 billion contract for 100 million doses to be delivered by December, with an option to acquire 500 million more doses, if the vaccine is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

July 27 The companies launch a Phase 2/3 trial with 30,000 volunteers in the United States and other countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Germany.

Sept. 12 Pfizer and BioNTech announce they will seek to expand their U.S. trial to 44,000 participants.



A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.BioNTech, via Reuters

Nov. 9 Preliminary data indicates the Pfizer vaccine is over 90 percent effective, with no serious side effects. The final data from the trial shows the efficacy rate is 95 percent.

Nov. 20 Pfizer requests an emergency use authorization from the F.D.A.

Dec. 2 Britain gives emergency authorization to Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine, becoming the first Western country to give such an approval to a coronavirus vaccine.

Dec. 10 The F.D.A. will meet in an open session to discuss emergency authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Dec. 31 Pfizer expects to produce up to 50 million doses by the end of the year, and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. Each vaccinated person will require two doses.

Spring 2021 Vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna are expected to reach large-scale distribution in the spring.

Sources: National Center for Biotechnology Information; Nature; Florian Krammer, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Tracking the Coronavirus


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