Distinguishing features of current COVID-19 vaccines: knowns and unknowns of antigen presentation and modes of action

NPJ Vaccines. 2021 Aug 16;6(1):104. doi: 10.1038/s41541-021-00369-6.


COVID-19 vaccines were developed with an unprecedented pace since the beginning of the pandemic. Several of them have reached market authorization and mass production, leading to their global application on a large scale. This enormous progress was achieved with fundamentally different vaccine technologies used in parallel. mRNA, adenoviral vector as well as inactivated whole-virus vaccines are now in widespread use, and a subunit vaccine is in a final stage of authorization. They all rely on the native viral spike protein (S) of SARS-CoV-2 for inducing potently neutralizing antibodies, but the presentation of this key antigen to the immune system differs substantially between the different categories of vaccines. In this article, we review the relevance of structural modifications of S in different vaccines and the different modes of antigen expression after vaccination with genetic adenovirus-vector and mRNA vaccines. Distinguishing characteristics and unknown features are highlighted in the context of protective antibody responses and reactogenicity of vaccines.

Publication types

  • Review