Novavax Vaccine: How it's Different & How it Works

Close up of a syringe drawing a vaccine

August 09, 2022

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Daniel Varga, M.D.

On July 13, 2022 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency use authorization for the Novavax vaccine.

With four vaccines now available – Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and now Novavax – you may be wondering, which vaccine is right for you, and what makes Novavax different.  

How does the Novavax vaccine work?

The Novavax vaccine uses protein subunits – this type of vaccine development has been used for over 30 years for protection against illnesses like hepatitis, shingles and other diseases.

The spike protein that’s on the outside of the COVID-19 virus, is taken, grown inside insect cells, and packaged into a group called nanoparticles. The nanoparticles are mixed with an immune-boosting ingredient, or adjuvant, that resembles the COVID virus. Adjuvants help vaccines work better by helping the body create a stronger immune response. The adjuvant in the Novavax vaccine uses extracts from the bark of a Soapbark tree. 

After the vaccine is injected, your body will identify the spike protein as an intruder and spark an immune response. The vaccine essentially imitates an infection, without actually infecting you with the virus – this trains your body on how to respond if you were to come in contact with the actual COVID-19 virus. 

What makes the Novavax vaccine different from the other vaccines?

The mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, the J&J vaccine, and the Novavax vaccine all have the same goal – to teach your body how to react to an exposure to the COVID-19 virus. 

Here’s how each of the vaccines work:

  • The Novavax vaccine uses copies of a COVID-19 spike protein,
  • the mRNA vaccines (Moderna & Pfizer) teach our cells how to make a protein,
  • and the J&J vaccine uses a piece of a modified virus, called a vector virus,
  • – all of these vaccines operate to trigger an immune response within the body.

    You can not get the COVID-19 virus from any of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Who should get the Novavax vaccine?

The Novavax vaccine is available for those over the age of 12.

The CDC noted that having a vaccine developed through more familiar vaccine technology provides a good option for those who may have been holding off on vaccination. 

“If the thought of an mRNA vaccine was what was keeping you from getting vaccinated, now is the time,” shares DOCTOR. “The Novavax vaccine was created similarly to how the flu shot is developed, so hopefully that familiarity can bring a level of comfort. Regardless of which brand you chose, it’s in the best interest of your health to be vaccinated against COVID-19.” 

What’s the timing for the Novavax vaccine?

The Novavax vaccine is a two-dose primary series, with the second shot administered three weeks after the first. 

As of now, the Novavax vaccine is not authorized to be used as a booster dose.

What are the side effects of Novavax?

Common side effects of the Novavax vaccine are similar to the other vaccines, and are more commonly seen after the second dose.  Side effects may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Pain at the injection site 

Next Steps & Resources:


The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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