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Man wearing a mask about to have a vaccination

Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine frequently asked questions

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout gathers pace around the UK, Dr Sarah Brewer answers common questions, addresses any concerns and debunks some conspiracy theories.

I've heard Bill Gates is using the vaccine to implant tracking microchips in the population. Is this true?

No. This theory is believed to have arisen from a tentative suggestion that an invisible ink tattoo could be applied at the same time as someone had a COVID-19 vaccination to confirm they were protected. Even if this happened, it is not a microchip and would not allow you to be traced in any way. 

Aren't pharmaceutical companies pushing the vaccine to make money?

Pharmaceutical companies, philanthropic individuals and organisations, as well as governments, have invested billions in developing COVID-19 vaccines to protect the world and help us return to normal life.

Because of this, at least two drug companies (Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca) don't want to be seen to be profiting from the global crisis, so have pledged to sell their vaccines for the duration of the pandemic at a price that just covers their costs.

Companies that price their vaccines higher in order to make a profit for their shareholders will likely find that demand for their products is limited and competition will push their prices down.

Have the vaccine companies been given immunity by the government in case anything goes wrong?

Yes. In the US, the government's Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act provides companies with immunity from liability for claims of loss resulting from countermeasures used to fight diseases.

Similarly, the UK's Human Medicines (Coronavirus and Influenza) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 16 October 2020, have allowed a quick licensing process for COVID-19 vaccines and also extended immunity from civil liability to companies producing the vaccine.

However, the Vaccine Damages Act would still apply. This can award damages if someone suffers a serious side effect or reaction. 

Will the vaccine give me COVID-19?

No. The vaccines do not contain any of the live coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Some vaccines provide a tiny fraction of the genetic code of the virus – just enough to allow your immune system to recognise it as foreign and mount a response.

The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine contains a harmless form of a different virus (an adenovirus which causes the common cold in chimpanzees), which has been altered so that it cannot cause an infection but can 'show' the spike protein to your immune system. The vaccines themselves cannot give you the COVID-19 infection.

A virus with a strand of DNA

Some vaccines provide a fraction of the genetic code of the virus, which your immune system recognises as foreign and so can prepare a response.

Will the vaccine have side effects?

The NHS has stated that the COVID-19 vaccine is a safe and effective way to get the best protection against serious illness. Most people won't notice any side effects, but some people do get a few symptoms due to their immune system mounting a response to the vaccine. These side effects are usually mild, should not last longer than a week, and can include:

  • a sore arm where the injection was given
  • feeling tired
  • a headache
  • feeling achy
  • feeling sick

You can take a painkiller such as paracetamol if needed, but if you are concerned call the NHS 111 helpline. 

I've heard that vaccines can cause health problems such as autism. Will this be the case?

No. There is no connection between any vaccine and the development of autism. This suggestion was originally made in relation to the MMR (measles mumps rubella vaccine) but the research used was false, the doctor who made the suggestion was struck off the medical register and the medical journal that published the research retracted it. 

Dr Fauci in the US said that the vaccine has been rushed through. Is this true and has it been tested enough to be safe?

Millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have now been given in the UK and many more doses given across the globe. The NHS has stated that the vaccine is a safe and effective way to get the best protection against coronavirus.

Pfizer is a US company, so why has the UK had the Pfizer vaccine first?

Because evidence from clinical trials that the Pfizer vaccine provides effective protection against COVID-19 was available before that of any other vaccine.

Has the vaccine been tested on animals?

Yes. Phase 1 clinical trials of any drug or vaccine are carried out using cell cultures and animals such as mice before they are tested in humans. This is a regulatory requirement and this essential step was carried out with the COVID-19 vaccines using mice and monkeys.

I have an egg allergy; will I be able to have the COVID-19 vaccine?

According to the Anaphylaxis Campaign, the Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines do not contain any egg proteins and none of these vaccines are contraindicated (have a reason not to be used) in people with an egg allergy.

A lot of vaccines contain pork or bovine extract, which goes against my beliefs – will there be an alternative?

Pork gelatin is used as a stabiliser in some vaccines to ensure they remain effective during storage and transportation. In the UK, three vaccines currently contain pork-derived gelatin: a nasal spray vaccine that protects children from flu, one of the two MMR vaccines and a shingles vaccine. None of the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available in the UK contain any pork products.

Will the vaccine be safe for vegans?

The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain products of animal origin. The UK Vegan Society has also issued a statement acknowledging the essential use of animals during the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

It's only important for older or vulnerable people to get the vaccine, so why should I?

While older and vulnerable people are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine as a priority, it is important for everyone to be immunised.

This is because some young and previously healthy people are still dying as a result of the pandemic, while others are experiencing serious long-term health problems, known as long COVID.

Additionally, if enough people are vaccinated, then the virus will struggle to spread through the population.

Young man wearing mask receiving vaccine from young medic

Young people can get seriously ill from coronavirus so should have the vaccine; this will also help slow the spread of the virus.

There are now two vaccines, with more on the way; which is best for me?

This is something you will have to discuss with your own doctor based on your medical history. Currently, three COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer BioNTech, Oxford AstraZeneca and Moderna) are authorised for use in the UK.

Will I have a choice in the vaccine I get, and how can I ensure I get the vaccine I want?

You will not have a choice during the first months of the vaccine rollout but, by the end of the year, supplies of different vaccines may allow a choice based on clinical reasons. 

What groups of people are advised not to get the vaccine?

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has advised that people with a history of anaphylactic reactions to food, an identified drug or vaccine, or an insect sting can receive any COVID-19 vaccine, as long as they have not had an anaphylactic reaction to a previous dose and are not known to be allergic to any of the vaccine's components.

There is no evidence that the vaccine is unsafe for pregnant women, but Public Health England and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have stated that COVID-19 vaccinations should not routinely be given to pregnant women until more safety data is available. The exceptions are women who are clinically vulnerable or who are frontline health or social care workers. More information is available from Tommy's.

What are the health implications for having the vaccine? Surely we don't know enough about the long-term health effects?

What we do know is the potentially serious effects of the COVID-19 infection itself, which include ongoing symptoms (long COVID) as well as death. While numbers have now dropped, over a thousand new deaths were reported daily in the UK during the peak of the second wave.

In comparison, millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have now been given in the UK, with many more distributed across the globe, and the relative risks are extremely low. 

If the virus mutates, will the vaccine be redundant? Will we need another one?

It will depend on the mutation. Some of the coronavirus variants that have emerged are proving to be more infectious, but the vaccines still offer some protection against them.

However, two variants that have been identified in South Africa and Brazil involve a mutation in the section of the virus used to produce the vaccines. This could make the antibodies made against the vaccine less effective against this particular variant. 

Will we need boosters every year, as with the flu virus?

It is not yet known for certain, but the virus responsible for COVID-19 does not appear to produce as many different 'strains' as the influenza virus.

One possibility is that following an initial course of two vaccinations we may need a booster every few years to maintain a good level of protection. Research is currently underway to determine how frequently boosters may be needed, if at all.

I've already had COVID-19: do I need to get the vaccine?

A recent study by Public Health England suggests that most people who have had COVID-19 are protected against catching it again for at least five months.

However, after this period immunity may wane, and, while past infection provides some protection against reinfection, it does not necessarily stop you from carrying and transmitting the virus.

Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that reinfection is possible, you should still receive the vaccination, whether or not you have already had the infection.

Dr Sarah Brewer is Healthspan's Medical Director and holds degrees in Natural Sciences, Surgery and Medicine from the University of Cambridge. Having worked as a GP and hospital doctor, Dr Sarah now holds an MSc in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey and specialises in nutrition. She is also an award-winning writer and author.

Find out more at Dr. Sarah Brewer's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.