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15 September 2021
What is in COVID-19 vaccines?

Misinformation about what is contained in COVID-19 vaccines is probably one of the key contributing factors to vaccine hesitancy. According to Dr Manoj Bagwandeen, director of UWC’s Campus Health and Wellness Centre, the technology to formulate the vaccine has been around for the past decade or so. This, coupled with an international collaboration to share information, allowed the vaccine to be formulated fairly quickly. The vaccines have undergone extensive trials and tests before being released.

UWC’s Associate Professor of Medical Biosciences Megan Shaw explained: “All vaccines and any medication that is administered has to go through a rigorous series of clinical trials involving three phases, where they assess safety and efficacy. The information gathered from the trial is then assessed by regulatory authorities in each country.” The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority is responsible for reviewing all the research data, and approving a vaccine for use in South Africa.

What is in the vaccines available in South Africa?

Prof Shaw (pictured) said the fact that none of the vaccines contains the COVID-19 virus should assure people that the vaccines do not contain infectious material. Currently, two different brands of vaccines, each with its own contents, are available in South Africa.

Medical and other frontline workers, like police officers and teachers, have received the single dose, Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It is known as a viral vector vaccine.

Many others are lining up for the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, also known as a Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.

Messenger ribonucleic acid is the only active ingredient in the Pfizer vaccine. As Prof Shaw explained, the mRNA contains the instructions for telling our bodies how to make what is known as a spike protein.

“The immune response then sees the protein and generates antibodies that are specific to the spike protein. If that vaccinated person is then exposed to the COVID-19 virus, the spike antibodies will see the spike protein on the virus, and bind to it. This blocks the virus infection, and hence protects the person.”

In the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the instructions for making the spike protein are packaged inside a harmless virus known as a vector.

"Following the injection, the vector delivers the instructions into the cells, and as with the Pfizer vaccine, the cells then make the spike protein, and the person generates an immune response,” said Prof Shaw.

Other than these active ingredients, the vaccines only contain salts, acids and sugars to assist with absorption. The Western Cape Health Department has also given the assurance that neither vaccine contains animal products or eggs. They are suitable for vegans and are halaal. The vaccines also naturally disintegrate once your immune system has been taught how to respond to the COVID-19 virus.

What You Will Find in the Vaccine

reported that all COVID-19 vaccines contain instructions for the spike protein on the coronavirus.

“The Johnson and Johnson vaccine contains an adenovirus which has been modified so that it cannot cause disease or multiply in humans. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine contains a messenger RNA (mRNA) fragment. The vaccines naturally disintegrate within days after they have instructed your immune system to respond to the spike protein on the coronavirus.”

The department listed the following non-active ingredients:

Johnson and Johnson vaccine
• Sodium chloride
• Citric acid monohydrate buffer
• Polysorbate 80
• 2 hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD)
• Ethanol (absolute)
• Sodium hydroxide
• Water for injection

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine
• ALC-0315 = (4-hydroxybutyl) azanediyl) bis (hexane-6,1-diyl) bis(2-hexyldecanoate)
• ALC-0159 = 2-[(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N,N-ditetradecylacetamide
• 1,2-Distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine
• cholesterol
• potassium chloride
• potassium dihydrogen phosphate
• sodium chloride
• disodium hydrogen phosphate dihydrate
• sucrose
• water for injections