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Coronavirus vaccines: how safe will they be and is it important that everyone gets one?

Public urged to take part in NHS vaccination programme when rollout begins

Wednesday 02 December 2020 13:53 GMT
AstraZeneca is one of several pharmaceutical firms to announce positive results from its vaccination trial
AstraZeneca is one of several pharmaceutical firms to announce positive results from its vaccination trial

Five of the UK’s leading scientists and health experts have joined forces to reassure the public about the rollout of any future Covid-19 vaccine.

The vote of confidence in how potential coronavirus jabs will be approved for use in the UK as part of the NHS coronavirus vaccination programme comes from senior figures including Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, and Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s Covid-19 vaccine sub-committee.

They are joined by Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, chair of the NHS research ethics regulator, the Health Research Authority, and Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunology at Public Health England, in hailing the vaccine as a potential route out of the pandemic.  

AstraZeneca became the third major drug company to report positive results from mass vaccination trials in November, with the jab found to be up to 90 per cent effective at preventing coronavirus. Earlier in the month, drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna reported results from two separate trials showing their vaccines were almost 95 per cent effective.

The government has now accepted the recommendation from the independent MHRA to approve Pfizer/BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine for use.

This follows months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA who have concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. 

The NHS has decades of experience in delivering large scale vaccination programmes and will begin putting their extensive preparations into action to provide care and support to all those eligible for vaccination.

The vaccine will be made available across the UK from early December, with notifications sent out to those who are immediately eligible.

“If I could be at the very front of the queue then I would be,” said Prof Van-Tam. “I don’t care which of the ones we’ve seen so far with good efficacy signals I have; providing the MHRA has authorised it, I’ll be having it.”

The deputy chief medical officer said scientists had succeeded in producing a vaccine in under a year because of the high prevalence of the disease in the population, meaning they could quickly reach the necessary sample size. “For something like meningitis, which is a very rare disease, waiting to get the numbers of cases required to get proof the vaccine works can take several years because there isn’t meningitis around every corner,” he said.

“There aren’t 100,000s of cases a week so the trial has to proceed slowly. In coronavirus territory, the vaccine manufacturers have done their best to place trials where disease activity is very high – that way you get the counts of people in the dummy arm with coronavirus to prove the vaccine works and you get it quickly.”

Prof Van-Tam previously said during a No 10 press conference that he would be encouraging his 78-year-old mother to get a vaccine – the so-called mum test. He said he had discussed the interview with her since, and she had replied: “Johnny, if you told me I had to get on a train to London tonight because I could have a vaccine later this evening, I’d be coat on and on the train in minutes. That’s how important it is to me.”

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

He also sought to reassure those worried about any long term side effects from the jab, saying they would be “extremely rare, if they occur at all”.

Short term side effects from future Covid jabs are expected to be mild, including symptoms commonly associated with other vaccines, such as a sore arm, slight temperature, or feeling fatigued, according to Dr Ramsay.

She said the jab had the potential to save “thousands of lives” and delaying their rollout would be akin to “allowing people to die of Covid while we’re worrying about something that probably will never happen”.

“The key is the number of people you’ve tested the vaccine on and we’ve tested the three vaccines on tens of thousands of people,” she explained.

“Although the vaccine has been produced in record time, it’s not much different to how we normally introduce a vaccine, the size of the studies are just as big. In this field there’s been so much investment … it’s allowed things to run in parallel so we get the results much more quickly.”

Dr Raine, head of the agency responsible for assessing and approving vaccines as well as monitoring their safety, said the public can be “completely confident” that any future Covid-19 jab would only be available once it had met “robust standards of safety, quality and effectiveness”.

Asked if there had been any pressure on the MHRA to rush through a vaccine, Dr Raine replied: “I am completely confident that there has been no pressure whatsoever on the agency and their expert staff – none at all.”

Public health experts have hinted at a potential relaxation of measures such as social distancing and mask wearing if enough people come forward for a jab by the spring.

Professor Wei Shen Lim said: “If we have a vaccine that works so well that it prevents vaccinated people from passing on the virus, and if a large enough number of people are vaccinated, it may be possible in time to stop transmission of the infection without the need for all the current restrictions.

“If a vaccine does the job of protecting people from dying, then it may be that we don't need to rely quite so heavily on social distancing measures, because we've got something else to use.”

The military is advising the NHS on how to deliver a nationwide vaccination programme (PA)

But he emphasised that a high take up of the vaccination was vital to eradicate the virus: “Whether or not we can get back to the full normal obviously will depend on how much vaccine is available, when it's used, how it is used and so on.”

Care home residents, health and social care workers and those aged 80 or over will be among the first to get a vaccine.

They are likely to be given in two doses, although the scientists are not yet certain how long the immunity will last for.

Sir Terence said: “If one or more of these vaccines come good … then I guess we'll know definitely in six months' time or next winter … whether the vaccine lasts a long time or not or whether people can get a second dose."

He also warned about misinformation being spread online about the safety of vaccines, particularly the speed with which the Covid jab was developed.

“It would be a shame then if there are all these myths around [suggesting] they didn't do it properly, that would be a real travesty, that would be misrepresenting the truth.”

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