Vaccines for coronavirus (COVID-19)

Researchers, scientists and doctors have worked at an extraordinary pace to develop vaccines against coronavirus. Older people and those with dementia are now among the first to get the new vaccines. This is a reason to be hopeful. Our information gives a summary of what you need to know.

What is a vaccine?

We all have our own natural protection – the immune system – that defends our bodies from viruses, bacteria and other infectious causes of disease.

Vaccines help to ‘train’ our immune systems to fight infections so that we can prevent them from making us ill. Most vaccines contain dead or weakened versions of the virus or bacterium, or sometimes just small pieces of these.

The vaccine helps our immune system learn how to protect the body without the risk of us getting the disease. This means that, if we later come across the real virus or bacterium, the body recognises it and gets rid of the infection before it can make us ill.

Where are we with developing a coronavirus vaccine? 

Developing vaccines for coronavirus has been a huge global effort. At one point in 2020 scientists across the world were working on more than 100 different coronavirus vaccines.

At present, three of these vaccines have been approved for use in the UK. This decision was based on trials – many involving tens of thousands of people. Approval means that the vaccines work and are safe. 

The first vaccine to be approved is from the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech. It contains a small piece of coronavirus RNA to make the spike protein on the virus surface.

The second vaccine to be approved is from Oxford University and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. It contains DNA to make the same spike protein. 

The third vaccine is from Moderna and works like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. It won’t be used in the first phases of the vaccination programme, but will be available later in the year.  

For all three vaccines, people will receive two injections. The second is a booster that increases overall effectiveness.

How effective are the coronavirus vaccines?

The available results for all three vaccines show that they are very effective at preventing symptoms of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

  • In trials the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines prevented COVID-19 in up to 95% of people who had the vaccine compared with those who did not.
  • The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is also very effective. In trials with different doses it prevented COVID-19 in up to 90% of people.

All three vaccines seem to work as well in older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. Scientists also think they will work well against the new coronavirus variant.

These results are important. They show that vaccination of people most at risk from COVID-19 would stop very many of them from getting ill. This protection will reduce pressure on our NHS and social care systems – both already stretched. 

It is not yet clear whether these vaccines also prevent the vaccinated person from passing coronavirus on to others. This seems likely and would be an added benefit because – together with measures like social distancing – it could help reduce the transmission of coronavirus in the community.

What about side-effects?

All vaccines have side-effects and the COVID-19 vaccines are no exception. Side-effects are mostly mild and can include:

  • a sore arm – where the vaccine is injected
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • aches.

It is very rare to have an allergic reaction to the vaccine ingredients. (None of them contain animal products.) Talk to the doctor if you have ever had a reaction to a vaccine. 

Should people affected by dementia have the vaccine?

Vaccination is voluntary and people should decide for themselves whether to have it or not. The NHS guide for older adults has summary information to help people decide, based on:

  • who is at highest risk (including older people and those with underlying health conditions)
  • vaccine safety and effectiveness
  • side-effects

You cannot catch COVID-19 from the vaccine.

For people with dementia, decisions on vaccination may raise issues of mental capacity and consent.

Expert viewpoint

Read what doctors at the British Geriatrics Society (BGS) say about COVID-19 vaccination for older people.

BGS vaccine advice

Who is being offered a coronavirus vaccine first?

The government pre-ordered many millions of doses of these vaccines. These are now being offered to people in large numbers, with people affected by dementia among the first.

The government's Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation interim guidance set out the priority groups for vaccination. These are:

  1. older adults resident in a care home and care home workers
  2. all those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers
  3. all those 75 years of age and over
  4. all those 70 years of age and over
  5. all those 65 years of age and over
  6. high-risk adults under 65 years of age
  7. moderate-risk adults under 65 years of age
  8. all those 60 years of age and over
  9. all those 55 years of age and over
  10. all those 50 years of age and over
  11. rest of the population (priority to be determined)

This prioritisation largely reflects who is most at risk of getting severe COVID-19 and dying from coronavirus. So people with dementia (many of whom are older and live in care homes) will be among the first to get a vaccine. Older carers of people with dementia are also likely to be among the first.

Guidance on timing of the second dose has changed, to give as many people as possible the protection from the first dose sooner. People will now get their second dose within 12 weeks of the first.

Where would I go to get vaccinated?

The UK has never attempted a vaccination programme on this scale. It will mean vaccinating millions of people over a few months in lots of different places. These places will include:

  • hospital hubs – for older patients and care staff
  • GP surgeries and community sites – for the over 80s initially
  • care homes – for residents and staff
  • community pharmacies
  • mass vaccination centres (in places such as sports venues and conference centres).

The NHS aims to vaccinate everyone living in a care home by the end of January 2021 and everyone over 70 (or who is clinically extremely vulnerable) by mid-February 2021.

The NHS is inviting people for vaccination when it is their turn. Some people will get a letter inviting them to book an appointment. Don’t call the GP about this until you are invited. You should try to make the booked appointment.

If you are not currently registered with a GP, you should register now to avoid missing out on a vaccine. 

Last updated 7 January 2021

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