The coronavirus vaccine
With the announcement of a coronavirus vaccine there are lots of questions we all have about what it might mean for us. We’ve provided answers to a number of key questions below.
How do vaccines work?
There are many types of vaccine, but the purpose of a vaccine is always the same: to train our immune system to respond to a germ as if it has seen it before and remembers how to tackle it.
Vaccines teach our bodies to recognise antigens. This is the part of the virus that attaches to the cells in our body – something they need to do to replicate and cause an infection. Your body’s immune system produces antibodies that ‘match’ the antigens from a specific virus and prevent them from attaching to cells.
After vaccination, if the virus gets into our body, our immune system remembers what to do and produces antibodies to fight it. This means the infection doesn’t get a chance to take hold and we are immune to the virus. Vaccination means we can stimulate this immunity without becoming unwell with the disease in the first place.
What do we know about the coronavirus vaccine?
There are now 3 vaccines approved for use in the UK:
- Moderna (although supplies of this one are not expected until spring 2021).
Each vaccine requires 2 doses to be fully effective, with the second dose given between 3-4 and 12 weeks after the first.
If you've already received your first dose, it's likely your appointment for the second dose will be postponed for another few weeks. This is because the evidence shows that 1 dose of a vaccine gives significant protection in the short term, and the Government has decided to prioritise getting as many people as possible their first dose as quickly as they can. However, everyone will receive 2 doses within 12 weeks and benefit from the maximum protection of the vaccine.
The UK regulator and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (the independent experts that advise Government on all vaccines) have assessed all the vaccines to be safe and able to offer a ‘high’ level of protection against becoming severely unwell with coronavirus.
When will I receive my coronavirus vaccine?
The roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine is now underway in Wales and eventually all adults will be offered the vaccine.
However, those at most risk will be prioritised first, as advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations. The Welsh Government has published the priority list order in their ‘Vaccination Strategy for Wales’, as follows:
- People living in a care home for older adults and their carers.
- All those 80 years of age and older and frontline health and social care workers.
- All those 75 years of age and over.
- All those 70 years of age and over and people who are extremely clinically vulnerable (also known as the “shielding” group – i.e. people in this group will previously have received a letter from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) advising them to shield at the beginning of the pandemic, plus a couple of other communications from the CMO at other stages).
- All those 65 years of age and over.
- All individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality - see below for a list of the relevant conditions. On 24 February 2021, Vaughan Gething, Minister for Health and Social Services, announced that certain unpaid carers would also be included at this stage. Guidance has been published with further information on which unpaid carers should be prioritised, based on factors such as the vulnerability of the cared for person and the nature of the care provided.
- All those 60 years of age and over.
- All those 55 years of age and over.
- All those 50 years of age and over.
The NHS has listed the underlying conditions as follows:
- chronic respiratory disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
- cystic fibrosis;
- severe asthma;
- chronic heart disease (and vascular disease);
- chronic kidney disease;
- chronic liver disease;
- chronic neurological disease including epilepsy;
- down’s syndrome;
- severe and profound learning disability (on 24 February 2021, Vaughan Gething, Minister for Health and Social Services, provided some additional information on identifying people who will qualify under this criteria. The Welsh Government plans to take an inclusion approach to the identification of those with severe / profound learning disability and it is expected that this should result in more individuals being prioritised under priority group 6 than might otherwise be the case);
- solid organ, bone marrow and stem cell transplant recipients;
- people with specific cancers;
- immunosuppression due to disease or treatment;
- asplenia and splenic dysfunction;
- morbid obesity; and
- severe mental illness (on 24 February 2021, Vaughan Gething, Minister for Health and Social Services, provided some additional information on identifying people who will qualify under this criteria. The Welsh Government plans to take an inclusion approach to the identification of those with serious mental illness and it is expected that this should result in more individuals being prioritised under priority group 6 than might otherwise be the case).
The Vaccination Strategy for Wales also sets 3 key milestones for the Welsh Government’s vaccine programme (though these are dependent on sufficient vaccine supply):
1. By mid February 2021 – it is aimed that vaccination should be offered to all:
- care home residents and staff;
- frontline health and social care staff;
- people aged 70 years of age and over; and
- clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (the “shielding” group).
2. By the spring of 2021 – it is aimed that vaccination should be offered to all:
- people aged between 50 and 69 years; and
- people clinically vulnerable/at risk.
3. By the autumn of 2021 – it is aimed that vaccination should be offered to:
- all other adults.
A copy of the Vaccination Strategy for Wales can be found on the Welsh Government’s website.
Who will contact me about receiving my vaccination?
The NHS will contact you by letter or phone when a vaccination appointment is available for you.
If your contact details have changed lately, make sure your GP practice has the most up to date information.
As indicated above, you will need to receive two doses of the vaccine, and latest plans indicate there will be a gap of around 12 weeks between receiving the first and second doses.
Be aware of scams:
Please be aware that scam calls or text messages relating to the vaccine have been circulating, requesting personal details, bank details or payments.
The vaccine is only available from the NHS and they will never ask you for this information, or for you to make payment as the vaccine is free of charge.
The NHS will never:
- ask for your bank account or card details;
- ask for your PIN or banking passwords;
- arrive unannounced at your home to administer the vaccine; or
- ask for documentation to prove your identity, such as a passport or utility bills.
If you receive a call, text or other communication that you think might be a scam, hang up or delete the text and report it to Action Fraud, including the number that was used to contact you. Action Fraud is the reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Where will I receive my vaccination?
Vaccinations will take place at one of the following settings:
- at a hospital;
- in the community – through GPs and pharmacists; or
- in specially designated vaccination centres.
If you can't travel to get a vaccine, you should still be contacted. The NHS is working on special arrangements for people who are housebound.
Please do not contact your GP or other services asking about the availability of the vaccine as they will be unable to provide this information.
Will receiving the vaccine mean that lockdown restrictions won’t apply to me?
While the first vaccine dose will provide you with some protection, you won’t be fully protected until a few weeks after your second dose as it takes a bit of time for your immune system to respond to the vaccine.
Even after your second dose, any rules and restrictions in place will still apply to you as we don’t yet know whether the vaccine prevents you from passing the virus on to others.
Whilst you can't catch coronavirus from the vaccine, there is a possibility you could catch it before you get to receive the vaccine, or during the short period after being vaccinated, prior to the vaccine taking effect. Therefore, you should still self-isolate and get a test if you get any coronavirus symptoms in the period after your vaccination.
How have the coronavirus vaccines been developed so quickly?
Developing a vaccine often takes some time. This is usually because research and pharmaceutical companies can’t commit to funding the whole process. There are often long gaps between phases while organisations wait for funding before moving to the next stage. Even when a vaccine is approved, it takes some time for pharmaceutical companies to set up manufacturing and produce the vaccine in the quantities needed for public use.
As the coronavirus pandemic has had such an impact globally, researchers and pharmaceutical companies have worked together to reduce the amount of time spent waiting between the phases of development.
Funding and approval for these vaccines has been made a priority. Governments around the world have ‘pre-ordered’ doses which means pharmaceutical companies have been able to set up manufacturing for vaccines earlier than usual.
While this collaborative approach means vaccines will be available sooner, it doesn’t mean any shortcuts have been taken. Each vaccine that’s approved for use will have been through all the essential stages in its development.
Are the vaccines safe?
Whilst the vaccines have been developed quickly, they have been extensively tested. The UK medicines regulator (MHRA) and the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) have stated that the approved vaccines are safe and offer a high level of protection against becoming severely unwell with COVID-19.
The vaccine you receive will be determined by the available stocks in your area, and you will not get a choice about which vaccine you receive. However, if you suffer from severe allergies you should speak to a healthcare professional via contact details provided when you are given your appointment (or to your GP) as the MHRA has advised against giving the Pfizer vaccine to people with a significant history of allergic reactions to medicines, vaccines or food.
When you receive the vaccine, you may experience some side effects that are common to other vaccines, such as the one for flu. These are:
- A sore arm, particularly in the area you had your injection.
- General aches or mild flu-like symptoms.
- Swollen glands (this only affects a small number of people).
If you do experience any of these side effects, they shouldn’t last too long – they normally pass within a week. But if they don’t clear up or you start to feel worse, you should call NHS 111 Wales to describe your symptoms and let them know you’ve had the vaccine so they can advise you.
Any side effects you experience can also be reported to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency's (MHRA) Yellow Card Scheme.
Should I get a vaccine?
Whether or not you decide to get a vaccine is an individual decision. The vaccine won’t be compulsory. However, when making any decision there are things worth considering:
- Being vaccinated means you're much less likely to become ill with coronavirus.
- Most of the population will have to be vaccinated for this pandemic to come to an end.
- Any vaccine offered to you will be licensed and approved and will have gone through all the necessary stages of development to make it safe and effective.
- Your healthcare professional is there to answer any questions or worries you might have about the vaccine.
I've already had coronavirus. Do I still need to get a vaccine?
While your body may have built up some natural immunity to coronavirus if you’ve already had it, we don’t know for certain how long this immunity lasts or how well it protects you from catching it again.
This natural immunity from having an illness doesn’t usually last as long as the immunity of a vaccine, so it’s recommended that if you’ve had coronavirus you do still get a vaccine when it becomes available to you.
If I have the vaccine will I be immune for life? / Can I still catch COVID after I've been immunised?
At the moment we don’t know how long immunity lasts after you’ve had a vaccination and how often you might need to get vaccinated – it’s possible further doses may be necessary in the future.
Experts will monitor the vaccine and what happens next, but it may be some years before we get the answer.
Like all medicines, no vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Some people may get COVID-19 despite having the vaccination, but their infection will be less severe.
How will consent for the vaccine be gained for people with reduced capacity to make decisions about their healthcare?
Everyone who receives a coronavirus vaccine will be required to give consent. Some people who will be offered the vaccine may lack mental capacity to make decisions about vaccination – this may apply to your loved one.
If this is the case, the decision-maker – usually someone’s GP or the person giving the vaccine – will need to follow the legal requirements set out under the Mental Capacity Act.
Due to this, care home providers have been asked to send letters and have conversations in advance with:
- people who have a valid and applicable Lasting Power of Attorney for health and welfare decisions on behalf of a resident; or
- to relatives who will need to be involved in making a best interest decision on behalf of an individual.
You may start to receive these in the coming weeks as care homes and the NHS prepare for rolling out the coronavirus vaccine to people living in care homes.
Further information: Public Health Wales has also created a detailed Q&A, which provides answers to a further range of questions and queries.