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COVID-19 vaccine explained: what it means for you

What's happening with the vaccine roll out and what's still to come?

COVID-19 vaccine explained: what it means for you

Story last updated: 14 January 2021

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has begun. Get the latest on who is first in line to get it, what safety measures are in place for rapidly produced vaccines and what this all means for hopes of a return to ‘normal’ life. 

Two of the COVID-19 vaccines now approved for use in the UK by the MHRA are in the process of being rolled out – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

A third, the Moderna vaccine, has been approved and will begin to be given in Spring.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines require two doses for optimum efficacy, and are currently being rolled out to high-priority groups by the NHS.

What’s the difference between the vaccines?

The Pfizer vaccine, which requires two jabs, is reported as having a 95% success rate in preventing COVID-19 infection in participants without evidence of prior infection.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has reported 70% efficacy as a single dose and up to 90% efficacy if a half dose is given followed by a full dose.

The vaccine developed by Moderna, which uses the same mRNA approach as the Pfizer vaccine looks to be 95% effective, and looks particularly promising for efficacy in people over 65. it also involves two jabs. 

Several other vaccines in development have released results from the final trial phase, with promising-sounding efficacy rates being reported.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both need to be stored at extremely low temperatures – below 0°C. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to store as it doesn’t need to be kept at such low temperatures.

There is currently no advice on a preference of one vaccine over another in any specific population. The AstraZeneca vaccine may need to be used where storage and transport options aren’t available for the Pfizer vaccine.

How and when are vaccines being given?

The Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines have now been approved for use in the UK and the former two are starting to be given to care home residents and care home staff, people over 80 and frontline health and social care workers.

The Moderna vaccine will be introduced from Spring this year.

All three of these vaccines must be given in two doses.

It’s important to note that all four nations are managing their own vaccination programmes. However, as it stands they’re all very similar to one another. 

The UK vaccination strategy is now to prioritise getting as many vulnerable people as possible vaccinated with the first dose to provide some level of protection, then have the second dose following within a 3 to 12 week window.

Vaccines are to be given at GP surgeries, dedicated vaccine hubs, hospitals and in England, some pharmacies.

You will be contacted when you are eligible for an appointment. This is most likely to come in the form of a letter, either from your GP or the NHS, encouraging you to book an appointment. This might be done through an NHS online booking portal – but beware of fake websites (see below).

Vaccines are expected to be available more widely from Spring 2021. But, as with all coronavirus progress estimates, we advise taking this with a pinch of salt.

Thinking about all the vaccines in progress (there are several more possible vaccines in various stages of development), the World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that there won’t be widespread global dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines until the middle of this year at the very earliest.

Beware of vaccine scams

We’ve been made aware of fake vaccination invitations coming to people via text or robocall, telling people they’re eligible to apply for a COVID-19 jab.

The vaccine is only available from the NHS – you will not have to pay for it – and the NHS will contact you when it is your turn.

Note that the NHS will never ask for payment or for your bank details, and will never ask you to press a button on your keypad or send a text confirming you want the jab – these are all signs of a scam.

What needs to happen before vaccines are rolled out to the wider public?

Due to the urgency of the situation, results from phase three trials – the final stage of testing a vaccine for safety and efficacy – have been widely publicised.

The next step after phase three trials is that vaccines must undergo regulatory approval, involving more safety studies and a peer review of the data.

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are the first to gain regulatory approval in the UK, and others may soon follow suit.

After this, the logistical challenges of producing and disseminating huge volumes of vaccines need to be met. In the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, one stumbling block is the very low temperature the vaccine needs to be stored at (-70°C).

The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine should be easier to disseminate as it can be stored in regular refrigerated conditions.

Any vaccine that gets to this stage also needs to be monitored once it’s rolled out to the public. This monitoring will look out for things that may only start to be picked up with widespread use – for example, rarer side effects and long-term risks/benefits.

There are several more vaccines that are currently in phase three trials and yet to release results.

Who is getting the COVID-19 vaccine first?

According to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the government, the provisional ranking of priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination is:

  • care-home residents and care-home workers
  • 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
  • 75 years of age and over
  • 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable people
  • 65 years of age and over
  • people between 16-64 years of age with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk
  • 60 years of age and over
  • 55 years of age and over
  • 50 years of age and over

The JCVI stresses that ‘any COVID-19 vaccination programme will need to ensure every effort is made to get good coverage in BAME groups, in areas of higher socio-economic deprivation, and in areas with outbreaks or high levels of community transmission.’

It advises that flexibility in vaccine deployment may be required at a local level to mitigate health inequalities in relation to access to healthcare and ethnicity.

Will the vaccine be mandatory?

So far, it looks like the COVID-19 vaccine will be voluntary for adults and children (who are low down the priority list anyway due to their age).

If you have ambitions to travel abroad in 2021 or beyond, you may find vaccination becomes mandatory for some destinations or airlines. Find out more in our story on COVID-19 travel vaccination requirements.

Flu vaccine 2020 – we explain who is eligible this year and why it’s worth getting the flu jab

Are rapidly developed vaccines safe?

Some may feel concerned that vaccines are being ‘rushed out’. But COVID-19 vaccines are still going through the normal trial phases and regulatory processes for approval.

The Oxford Vaccine Group explains that to produce a vaccine more quickly than normal (the current record time is five years), phases are being run in an overlapping manner where possible, and provisions for regulatory approval, funding, manufacturing and logistics are being prepared earlier than they would be normally.

This is to make sure that once a vaccine has gone through successful trials, the necessary structures are in place to get it going quickly.

There’s also been more money pumped into these vaccine trials by governments, which wouldn’t be the case in a non-emergency situation.

Vaccines are then closely monitored for any side effects as they are given to the public. Most of the time, adverse effects from vaccines are detected soon after the jab is given, so it’s likely to be picked up quickly.

For the vaccines that have been approved, the safety data is very good – only showing mild side effects – and phase three trials are designed to expose any serious safety concerns.

During the initial roll out of the Pfizer vaccine, allergic reactions were recorded in two people with a history of anaphylaxis, both of whom recovered well.

Guidance was then updated to stipulate that the Pfizer vaccine should not be given to people with an allergy to any component of the vaccine.

In some cases, vaccines need specific safety approval for certain groups. The Oxford University Vaccine Group said: ‘the easiest example for a special case minority group is pregnant women. Without specific trials in pregnant women, no vaccine would carry approval for use for them.’

The JCVI has advised that pregnant women at high risk of getting coronavirus or developing complications from the virus should discuss vaccination with their doctor.

Will a COVID-19 vaccine mean a return to ‘normal’ life?

It’s thought that if we want to return to ‘normal’ life, we need a vaccine, but scientists have stressed it’s not a silver bullet, and as the UK is currently experiencing a challenging rise in infections due in part to the new, more infectious, variant – it’s definitely not a time to relax our guard.

There are significant issues in disseminating a vaccine globally too. Depending on the type of vaccine, it may have specialist storage requirements that make it trickier in areas where the appropriate infrastructure doesn’t exist. For example, the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept in very low temperatures.

We also don’t know how long-lasting the immunity from a vaccine will be, and whether we’ll need booster shots or even a yearly injection, as there is for flu.

It’s also unclear so far whether the vaccine will stop people from spreading the disease, or just stop them from getting very ill.

Either way, whilst there is reason to be positive, it’s important to maintain other key measures such as social distancing, wearing masks, and good hand hygiene.

New COVID-19 variant – what you need to know and how to protect yourself

Will the COVID-19 vaccine be available privately?

With a few vaccines in the mix, each with different levels of reported efficacy and with some requiring two doses, you might be wondering if you might get a choice of which vaccine you have – and if the vaccine will be available to purchase through private healthcare.

For now at least, the answer is no. It’s only available through the NHS, and you’re likely to be given whatever is available quickest and is most practical for your area.

The government has said that people will not be able to get priority by paying for the vaccine, and there aren’t yet any plans to offer vaccinations outside of the NHS and the agreed priority list outlined above.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told us:

“The UK government has secured early access to 350 million vaccines doses through agreements with six separate vaccine developers, giving the UK the best chance of securing a safe and effective vaccine at the quickest speed.

“This will be more than enough to potentially vaccinate the entire UK population, should a vaccine be approved. It will be available from the NHS – for free – to everyone eligible to benefit, starting with those most at risk as currently advised by the JCVI.”

Social distancing and other measures still vital for the near future

Scientists estimate that around 60% of the population would need to be immune to COVID-19 (either through vaccination or by getting the disease and recovering with immunity, if that occurs) before we achieve anything like ‘herd immunity’.

This means that other measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing, are likely to remain in place and vitally important even while the vaccine is being rolled out.

We’ll also need to see testing and tracing programmes across the UK improve drastically to fight the spread of the virus effectively, particularly with the new, more infectious strain of the virus.

That being said, there’s still reason to be cautiously optimistic that this could be the beginning of a turning point in the pandemic.

Hand hygiene – your questions on sanitiser, soap and hand health answered

This story was originally published on 10 November 2020, but has since been updated to reflect the latest developments around the COVID-19 vaccine.

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