Coronavirus: the steps to a vaccine
Dr Elizabeth Webb explains the stages scientists have to go through to produce a vaccine for coronavirus (COVID-19).
Find out if you're eligible for the spring booster jab, as well as how you can book it.
Yes. The UK regulator and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) (the independent experts that advise Government on all vaccines) have assessed all approved vaccines to be safe and able to offer a high level of protection against becoming severely unwell with coronavirus, including for older people.
While there are different vaccines available, no one will receive a vaccine that hasn’t been properly approved and shown to be safe.
The NHS will contact you if your NHS record suggests you might be eligible for a seasonal spring booster jab.
From April 2024, you might be offered the COVID-19 vaccine if you:
The programme should begin on 15 April 2024 with housebound people, then all other eligible groups from 22 April 2024 – 30 June 2024.
Research has shown that the protection the vaccines provide starts to lessen as time goes on. Booster vaccines have also been amended to protect you from more recent variants, so it's important that everyone who is eligible goes and gets their booster.
Yes, it's important to get both your coronavirus booster and your flu jab this winter. They're different vaccinations that will help protect you against different viruses.
It might be that you're offered both at the same time. This is perfectly safe and could be more convenient for you.
It's important that you get your flu jab as well as your coronavirus booster this winter – they're different vaccinations that protect you against different viruses.
You can book your booster vaccine online on the NHS website or by calling NHS 119 between 7am and 11pm. The NHS might contact you to invite you to book, too.
When booking your appointments, it's helpful to have your NHS number to hand – you can find it on letters from the NHS or on some medications. If you’re registered with a GP, you can still book without an NHS number. You’re also able to book an appointment on behalf of someone else.
It can help to be prepared when going into your coronavirus booster appointment – even if you've had one fairly recently.
You'll need to bring the following with you to your appointment:
When you attend your appointment, you'll be asked:
You'll also have the chance to ask any questions you may have.
Once you've had your booster vaccine and you're ready to leave the appointment, you'll be given some things:
Each vaccine has gone through trials to ensure the risk of serious side effects is very low. However, as with other vaccines – such as the flu vaccine – there are some common side effects. These include:
A small proportion of people might experience swollen glands. If this happens to you, you're advised to take paracetamol. Always check to make sure you're able to take certain medications.
If you do experience any of these side effects, they're likely to last no longer than a week. But if they get worse, or if you're concerned, you should call 111 and explain your symptoms – let them know you've had a vaccination.
Any side effects you experience can also be reported to the MHRA Yellow Card Scheme by your doctor.
Serious reactions to vaccines are uncommon but can happen. People with an allergy to the ingredients of the vaccine should not receive it – however, those with other allergies (such as to food and other medicines) are able to. If you’re concerned, speak to your doctor or healthcare professional for further advice.
As well as the autumn booster vaccine, there are other treatment options for coronavirus that are available for certain eligible people. These treatments are used in the earliest stages of an infection and are taken at home.
You're eligible for coronavirus treatment without being admitted to hospital if all the following apply:
Some treatments are also available through the national PANORAMIC study to a wider group of people, including those aged 50 years old and over (or 18 years old and over with a health condition that puts them at increased risk of coronavirus).
Local NHS organisations are responsible for arranging coronavirus treatments, so how you get treatment depends on where you live.
Your local integrated care board (ICB) can give you more information.
If you think you're in the highest risk group and need to access coronavirus treatment, but you don't have information from your local NHS organisation, follow these steps to be considered for a referral:
If you have any symptoms of coronavirus, take a rapid lateral flow test as soon as possible, even if your symptoms are mild. Only take a test if you have symptoms. If you're eligible for coronavirus treatment, you should keep rapid lateral flow tests at home. You can pick up free rapid lateral flow test kits from a local pharmacy if you’re eligible for coronavirus treatment – the pharmacy may ask you questions about your medical history to confirm you’re eligible for free tests. You can also use tests you've paid for, for example, a test you've bought from a supermarket or pharmacy.
Call your GP surgery, NHS 111 or hospital specialist as soon as possible if your test result is positive. They'll decide if you need referring for an assessment for coronavirus treatment. They may ask what other medicines you take or receive, including any vitamins and minerals, so it's important to have a list of these ready. If you're eligible for treatment, you'll get instructions on where to get the treatment and how to get there and back safely.
Oral antivirals are also available in the community, through a national study called 'PANORAMIC'. The PANORAMIC national study aim to help gather data on how antivirals work in a highly vaccinated population.
You're eligible for PANORAMIC if you meet the following criteria:
If you meet the eligbility criteria, you can sign up for the study on the PANORAMIC study website.
The treatments available for people at the highest risk of becoming seriously ill from coronavirus are:
Click on the links above to find out more about these treatments on the NHS website.
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. There are vaccines against illnesses caused by all sorts of germs, but as coronavirus is caused by a type of virus, we’ll focus on those here.
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.
Traditional vaccines contain either a modified or weakened form of the virus, including the antigen. Some vaccines which use newer technology contain the genetic code for the virus’ antigen instead, so your body produces the antigen itself. Both methods have the same result: they prompt our immune system to make antibodies that ‘match’ the antigen.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.
There’s a careful process for developing vaccines to make sure they’re both safe and effective.
Wherever a vaccine is developed, it must be granted approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) if it's to be used in the UK. They examine the available information about the vaccine, how well it works and whether it’s safe before giving approval. Once approved and licensed, the vaccine needs to be produced in large enough quantities before finally being given to the population.
The coronavirus vaccines have all been through these stages before being approved for use.
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 worked together to reduce the amount of time spent waiting between the phases of development.
Funding and approval for these vaccines was made a priority. Governments around the world ‘pre-ordered’ doses which meant pharmaceutical companies were able to set up manufacturing for vaccines earlier than usual.
The NHS prepared a vaccination programme so that it could start vaccinating people as soon as vaccines were approved and available.
While this collaborative approach means vaccines were made available sooner, it doesn’t mean any shortcuts were taken. Each vaccine approved has been through all the essential stages in its development.
Whether or not you get a vaccine is an individual decision. The vaccine isn't compulsory.
However, as with making any decision, there are things worth considering:
It’s recommended that pregnant women should only receive the vaccine in certain circumstances. Children shouldn't get the vaccine at the moment, either. This is simply because it hasn't yet been tested on these groups.
If you have concerns based on specific medications or medical conditions, here are some links which may help answer your questions:
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 given by a vaccine, so it’s recommended that if you’ve had coronavirus you do still get a vaccine.
At Age UK, we get all of our information from reputable sources including the NHS, academic experts, scientific publications, pharmaceutical companies, the World Health Organisation, and the organisation that approves the vaccines: the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
But there's a lot of misinformation out there. So how do you know what you can believe?
Do I know where this information has come from?
If the person you’re talking to, the social media post you’re reading, or the YouTube video you’re watching doesn’t say where they’ve found the information they’re sharing, it’s worth being sceptical.
We also know there is false information out there which has been created deliberately to worry or upset people. If you see something unnerving, run through the rest of this checklist to see if it is likely to be true.
Is it from a trusted source?
Is the information from a trusted news source that you are familiar with? There are lots of people claiming to be experts speaking about vaccines, but it may be hard to tell whether they are as knowledgeable as they say they are.
Who else is saying the same thing?
If you’ve found information that looks like it could be legitimate, but you aren’t sure, see if you can find it from other reputable and trusted sources. It is unlikely that only one source has a true story about coronavirus.
Is this new or old information?
This is a quick-changing area and researchers are improving knowledge about coronavirus and the vaccines all the time. What may have been thought to be true a month ago may have been improved upon, disproven, or understood better by now.
There have been reports of other countries pausing their rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to certain groups. The MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) in the UK, the European equivalent, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), are all confident of the safety and effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and agree that the benefits outweigh any risks.
Millions of people have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. A small number of people have developed health conditions after vaccination. There is substantial evidence of the benefits of the vaccine in preventing illness from coronavirus. The MHRA, EMA and WHO continue to closely monitor all coronavirus vaccines.
We offer support through our free advice line on 0800 678 1602. Lines are open 8am-7pm, 365 days a year. We also have specialist advisers at over 120 local Age UKs.
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