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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: 28 May 2021

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway. We explain who is first in line to get vaccinated, the different vaccines being used, how they work and how this affects the speed of the rollout, what safety measures are in place, and what this all means for hopes of a return to ‘normal’ life. 

Latest updates on vaccine progress:

  • Three 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, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. A fourth, the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine, has been approved and is due to be given later this year, possibly as a single booster shot.
  • Results from an Oxford University study suggest that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could reduce transmission significantly. This is important as previously it was not known whether any vaccine would stop people catching and spreading the disease asymptomatically.
  • There have been extremely rare reports of blood clots occuring after the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, so the MHRA has advised that under 40s and people with a history of clotting be given a different vaccine where necessary. For the vast majority of people, the benefit of getting the AstraZeneca vaccine far outweighs any risk – especially as it has been proven that Covid itself can cause clotting.
  • We’ve been made aware of multiple vaccine scam emails and texts going around, which link to sophisticated fake NHS websites. It’s important to note the NHS will never ask you for payment, your bank or card details, or copies of personal documents like your passport.

Jump to:

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine: how you’ll be contacted and more explained

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.

The Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine is given as a single shot, and is shown to be 67% effective overall in preventing COVID-19 infection and 85% effective in preventing severe disease or hospitalisation

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 and Janssen vaccines are easier to store as they don’t need to be kept at such low temperatures.

Because of a suspected and still extremely unlikely association between the AstraZeneca vaccine and very rare blood clots, the MHRA has advised that people with a history of blood clotting should only have the AstraZeneca jab where the benefits outweigh the potential risk.

The MHRA also advised that people under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine.

No announcement has yet been made about the Janssen vaccine, but there have been similar (though similarly rare) reports of blood clotting associated with this vaccine from the US.

How and when are vaccines being given?

The Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines have now been approved for use in the UK.

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

The Janssen vaccine has also now been approved, and only requires one dose. It will be available from later in the year, and may be given as a booster shot.

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.

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, or you may be able to book online without being contacted.

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.

Always look carefully for suspicious URLs, email addresses, and spelling mistakes on pages you’re directed to.

What’s happening with the vaccine roll out?

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, AstraZeneca,  Moderna and Janssen vaccines are the first to gain regulatory approval in the UK, and others may follow.

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 and Janssen vaccines should be easier to disseminate as they 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 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

We are now past these stages, and people n their 20s and 30s are being vaccinated.

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.

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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 new, more infectious, variants – 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. This is likely, as there is already evidence that some vaccines work less well against some mutations of the virus.

It’s also unclear so far whether the vaccine will stop people from spreading the disease, or just stop them from getting very ill. Although preliminary results from a study of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine show it may reduce transmission by up to 67%.

We’ve known for a while that ‘normal’ life is likely to return gradually, not overnight, and we may well be living with the virus for a while. Still – with vaccines this is likely to be a lot more manageable, and restrictions should ease significantly when more of the population is vaccinated.

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.

COVID-19 vaccine and travel – your questions answered

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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