BuDS has updated our easy-to-understand information about Covid vaccines, so here’s what we do know, and what we don’t know, about these all-important vaccines.
Q: How many vaccines are there?
There are currently three approved Covid vaccines in the UK, with new vaccines being developed. The three which have been approved so far – and which you are most likely to receive – are the Pfizer, Oxford or Moderna vaccines.
Q: How do the vaccines work?
We all have a natural defence against viruses, called our immune system. But because Covid is a new disease, our immune system needs to be activated against the Covid virus. The vaccines activate our immune system against Covid. The vaccines do not give you Covid because they don’t contain the Covid virus. They are made up of chemicals that work on your immune system so that it can recognise and fight against the Covid virus.
As the vaccine activates your immune system against Covid, you may get side-effects like an ache in your arm, a temperature, headache or feeling like you have the flu. But these side-effects go away very quickly for most people, and many people don’t get them at all. Remember, these side-effects are just caused by your own immune system as it is activated by the vaccine – you don’t have a disease or illness.
Q: How quickly does the vaccine work?
You are not instantly protected against Covid when you get your injection of vaccine. Our immune system takes time to be activated against the Covid virus, and more than one vaccination injection is needed. The three approved vaccines in the UK all need two injections, but there is another vaccine used in the United States which only needs one injection.
Each UK vaccine needs different lengths of times to fully activate your immune system against Covid.
The Pfizer vaccine is given as two injections at least 21 days apart. This vaccine is not fully effective until 7 days after the second injection.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is given as two injections between 4 and 12 weeks apart. This vaccine is not fully effective until 7 days after the second injection.
The Moderna vaccine is given as two injections 28 days apart. This vaccine is not fully effective until 14 days after the second dose.
So, depending on the vaccine you get and when you get the second injection, it can take between 4 weeks and 13 weeks before your immune system is fully activated against the Covid virus.
Q: How old do you need to be to get a vaccine?
People aged over 16 can be given the Pfizer vaccine and everyone over 18 can have any one of the three vaccines. There isn’t a vaccine approved for children under 16 in the UK yet, but scientists are developing one. We don’t know when this Covid vaccine for children will be ready.
Q: How safe are the vaccines?
The Covid vaccines have been fully tested and approved by the independent Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The Covid vaccines were put through the same testing procedure as all other vaccines, just quicker. This means the vaccines have all met strict standards which includes safety, quality and effectiveness. So, Covid vaccines are just as safe as every other approved vaccine.
Q: Does the vaccine stop me catching the Covid virus?
No, the vaccine does not stop you catching the Covid virus. You can still catch the virus and have it in your body after you have been vaccinated, even if you have had both doses. The vaccine helps stop you getting ill with Covid if you catch the virus.
Q: Can I infect other people with the virus after I’ve been vaccinated?
Yes, you can infect other people with the virus after you’ve been vaccinated. The virus can still enter your body and live there after you’ve been vaccinated and, if you have the virus in your body, you can still infect other people with your breath or saliva (spit). This is why it is important for people who have been vaccinated to still wear face coverings and keep their distance from other people, so that they don’t spread the virus. Remember, the vaccine helps stop you from being ill when you get infected – it doesn’t stop the virus entering your body.
People who have been vaccinated who have the Covid virus in their body may be less likely to pass the virus to other people, but we don’t know this for sure yet. So, people who have been vaccinated should still take care not to pass the virus to other people by wearing masks and keeping their distance from other people.
Remember, most people in the UK have not been vaccinated yet, and some people may never be vaccinated because of their medical conditions. There are still tens of millions of people who could get seriously ill or die if you infect them with Covid, so keep taking care not to pass the virus on even after you’ve been vaccinated
Q: How safe am I when I’ve had my vaccine?
None of the vaccines make you completely safe from getting ill or dying from Covid. This is scientifically impossible. But the chances of getting seriously ill or dying from Covid are very much smaller after you have been vaccinated.
You get safer and safer from getting ill with Covid as time passes after your first injection. Your safety starts to improve about a week after the first injection and after 2 or 3 weeks you will have some safety from being ill with Covid if you catch it. But nobody can say exactly how safe you will be at this point. Some people may be quite safe and other people may not be very safe. So, the best thing to do is not take any risks and continue to protect yourself against catching Covid, by wearing face coverings, keeping your distance from other people, and continuing to shield if you are in the shielding group.
One or two weeks after your second vaccine injection (depending on which vaccine you had), you will reach your maximum level of safety against the Covid virus. This means you will be very unlikely to get seriously ill or die if you catch Covid. But it could still happen, so you should still take care not to catch it.
Q: What about the new variants of Covid like the Kent, South African & Brazilian variants?
All viruses can mutate, or change, as they spread to a new person. Sometimes these mutated versions or ‘variants’ are better at spreading to new people than the old version and, because they are better at spreading, they can replace the old variant. In the last few weeks, some new variants of the Covid virus have started to spread very quickly.
At the moment, we don’t know for sure if the vaccines used in the UK will stop people getting ill or dying from Covid if they catch one of the new variants. This is because the vaccines activate your immune system against the old variants of the Covid virus and so might not work as well against new variants. Scientists are still looking at this and we will have more news soon.
If it turns out that the vaccines do not stop people getting ill or dying if they catch one of the new variants, it will be quite easy to make a new vaccine which will activate the immune system against the new variants as well. This is what happens now against ordinary flu, which has new variants every year. So, there is no need to be too worried about the new variants.
Q: With all the new variants, are we going to need to be vaccinated against Covid on a regular basis?
Possibly, but it is too early to say. It is possible that a Covid booster will be needed every year like for ordinary flu.
Q: Who cannot have the vaccine?
The vaccination is not recommended for pregnant women because there has not been any testing yet on the possible side effects for the baby. But there is no evidence that unborn babies are at risk from the vaccines.
People who are suffering from a fever-type illness should rearrange their vaccination appointment until they are feeling better.
If you have ever had a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) talk to your GP or the vaccination staff before you are vaccinated. But most people with even severe allergies can be vaccinated with one or other of the vaccines. Serious allergic reactions are rare but, if you do have a reaction to the vaccine, it will usually happen straightaway and the staff at the vaccination centre will be able to treat it immediately.
If you are worried about having the vaccine, contact your GP surgery for more information. Please don’t follow the advice of people on Facebook or social media – talk to your own doctor or nurse.
Q: When can we all stop taking precautions like social distancing and face masks?
Only around 800,000 people in the UK have had both vaccine injections and so are very unlikely to get ill if they catch Covid. So, nearly all the population could still get ill or die if they catch the virus.
Another 20 million people in the UK have received their first vaccine injection and have some protection against getting ill if they catch Covid. But they can also still get ill or die if they catch Covid, although the risk is smaller than if they had not been vaccinated.
45 million people have not had any vaccine yet. Although this group is not in the highest risk groups for Covid, they can still get ill or die if they catch the virus.
These figures show that it is far too soon to be removing precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing. Most of the people in the UK are still at risk from Covid, even if the risk is smaller than before vaccination started. It will take some months more before this situation changes.
Remember that many thousands of people will not be able to be vaccinated against Covid and those people need to be protected long-term,
Q: Will the ‘vaccines replace restrictions’?
The UK Government have said that they hope that ‘vaccines will replace restrictions’, in other words that in the future people will be protected against illness and death by being vaccinated and so precautions like social distancing and mask wearing will be unnecessary. According to the UK Government’s ‘roadmap’, they hope to start allowing more places to open and people to mix with each other again over the next 4 months. After June, according to the ‘roadmap’, taking health precautions will be voluntary, so people can ignore them if they want.
We don’t know if this is going to be possible or safe.
At the moment, it is difficult to know how long restrictions will remain in place.
While vaccines have shown to be highly effective at preventing serious infection, no vaccine is 100% effective and new variants will continue to emerge. Regardless of vaccination, we should all continue to be aware that we may still be able to catch coronavirus and pass it on to others, including those who are unable to be vaccinated.
What does this mean for you?
We recommend that if you are offered the vaccine and are able to have it, you accept it and arrange an appointment with your GP as soon as possible. Having the vaccine will reduce your chances of contracting the virus or, in the case of infection, reduce serious illness. You should also continue to socially distance, follow lockdown regulations, and wear a mask when in public.
The rate of vaccine uptake is positive and is enabling more detailed study into their effectiveness. Recent figures from both Public Health England and Public Health Scotland show an 80% decrease in hospitalisations of over 80-year-olds who have been given the first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. This is encouraging news and demonstrates the importance of having the vaccine when you are offered it.
It is important to remember, however, that coronavirus remains a risk to everyone, even those who have already been vaccinated. We must all behave safely and responsibility to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.