Is the Covid-19 vaccine the beginning of the end of the pandemic? FAQs with Dr Zoltan Varga
Please note: the information contained within this article is considered to be true and correct at the time of publication (December 2020). However, as this is a fast-evolving situation, further updates may impact on the accuracy of this information after this date. For the latest information go to www.gov.uk/coronavirus. Aspen staff can visit the intranet or speak to their line manager, and we will continue to update you as the situation unfolds.
History was made this month when the UK became the first country in the world to approve and start rolling out a coronavirus vaccine. The Pfizer and BioNTech jabs have raised hopes that the end of the pandemic may be near, and a return to normality around the corner.
However, with a number of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories circulating online and one in five Brits saying they may refuse to take a vaccine, it’s important to take a look at the facts and consider how safe the new vaccinations are.
Dr Zoltan Varga, Aspen’s Medical Director, goes through the detail and tackles some of the common questions.
Will the vaccine change my DNA?
No, the vaccine will not change your DNA. The vaccine aims at evoking an immune response triggering your body’s defence system.
The vaccine works by entering the cells and telling them to produce a protein that is the marker (identifier element) of the Coronavirus (called the spike protein). This prompts the immune system to produce antibodies and activate T-cells to destroy infected cells. If the patient encounters coronavirus, the antibodies and T-cells are triggered. Therefore, the vaccine does not enter or modify DNA at all.
If modern science did have a technique that allowed for faulty DNA to be changed, then many children and adults with diseases stemming from faulty DNA would be cured! You can read more about the approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 by MHRA on GOV.UK.
Is a vaccine that has been developed this quickly safe to take?
The actual clinical trial phases were fully comprehensive and rigorous, and they were no shorter and no different to previous trials. There were three innovations that sped up the process, but these did not impact the clinical trial processes:
- Research needs money, and raising the funding for a vaccine is an arduous and long process that can take from 9 months to 2 years. For this vaccine, funding was less of an issue as there were significant contributions from governments and investors particularly from the US, UK, EU, Russia and China.
- Trials need volunteers whose recruitment can take a significant time due to legal and ethical authorisation as well as for administrative reasons. This has been remarkably shortened with Covid-19. With previous vaccines, a clinical trial phase would be concluded before the major and costly logistical exercise of recruitment would begin. In the case of Covid-19 vaccine trials, researchers started the recruitment of volunteers at the beginning of the first research phase for all of the trial phases — so there was no time lost in-between the phases.
- Thirdly the regulatory authorisation and approval process also became “smarter” in order to save time. The Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), was instructed to carry out a “rolling authorisation” meaning they were asked to evaluate the data simultaneously with the trial and monitor the research from start right to the end. Normally, researchers first complete the trial, compile the results and then submit the result to MHRA. In normal circumstances only after this would the MHRA schedule the evaluation process for the trial, which of course often involves a significant wait before it can even begin.
You can read more about the approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 by MHRA on GOV.UK.
Is it mandatory for me to take the vaccine?
At this stage the vaccine is not mandated by the UK government. However, this may not necessarily be the case for healthcare workers in the future. Governments and health agencies first need to see if the vaccines are successful in controlling the pandemic. It will take some time before this issue will be assessed and addressed again by respective Governments and agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO).
If I take the vaccine can I go back to living like normal, without masks and distancing?
As large numbers of people from at risk groups are given a vaccine, the Government and health agencies will be able to examine the infection rates. If the vaccination program is successful, this should in time lead to a reassessment of the current restrictions. Vaccines, and potentially in the future new medicines, could eventually make Covid-19 a manageable disease, reducing its impact, and allowing us all to get back to our normal lives.
Until then, we all need to do follow national and public health guidelines including mask-wearing and social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus.
Is there a chance I will be allergic to the vaccine but won’t know until I take it?
Studies have shown that in people who do not have a history of serious allergic reactions in the past, the vaccine is absolutely safe. Having said this, it cannot be conclusively ruled out that a person will be allergic to the vaccine and not know until they take it.
People with serious allergies are advised by the MHRA not to take the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. This follows recent media coverage of two people who had “adverse” reactions after taking the vaccine and developed symptoms of “anaphylactoid reaction”, but both recovered after the appropriate treatment.
For the safety and reassurance for those who do take the vaccine, there is a 15-minute observation period after the jab as a precautionary measure. Read the latest COVID-19 vaccine advice if you have a history of allergies by MHRA on GOV.UK
Are there any groups of people who should not take the vaccine?
While the Pfizer vaccine is safe for most people, there are a few instances where more research needs to be done before it can be declared safe for certain groups. For example, the vaccine has not yet been assessed in pregnancy, so it has been advised that until more information is available, those who are pregnant should not have this vaccine.
It is also standard practice when waiting for data on any medicine, to avoid its use in those who may become pregnant or who are breastfeeding. So if you think you may be pregnant, you should delay vaccination until you are sure you are not, and if you are planning to get pregnant in the next 3 months, you should also delay your vaccination. Women who are breastfeeding should also wait until they are not feeding before having the vaccine. More information is available on the Government website.
It’s also important to note that the Covid-19 vaccinations have authorised for use only for people above the age of 16.
Can the vaccine ‘overload’ my immune system?
At this stage, there is no evidence from the trials that any of the vaccines – either authorised or in trial – would produce such an adverse event. The MHRA continues monitoring the vaccine as it is rolled out among the population. There are robust systems in place for reporting any side effects that may arise and a swift action plan that can be implemented as necessary.
For obvious reasons, this monitoring process is more robust and comprehensive than ever before.
If everyone around me is immune, do I need a vaccination?
Yes – you definitely need to have the vaccine to become immune. Immunity means you will not develop the disease at all or only have very mild symptoms. People who are immune may still carry the virus without being ill and can still potentially infect you.
I’ve already had the virus. Do I need to take the vaccine?
Yes, you do need to take the vaccine to give you the best chance to develop as long an immunity as possible. Having had the virus, particularly when you did not have symptoms, is no guarantee for a long-lasting immunity.
I’ve heard that vaccinations cause autism – is this true?
Based on the clinical trials, there is no clinical evidence at all in relation to Covid-19 vaccines. Indeed, there is no robust scientific evidence to support the claim that any vaccines lead to autism.
Sadly a small minority of people spread misinformation online in relation to the well-known, proven and safe childhood immunisations, such as the MMR jab.
Dr Zoltan Varga is Aspen’s Medical Director. You can find more information about the Covid-19 vaccine on the NHS website here.