Vaccines for coronavirus (COVID-19)

Researchers, scientists and doctors have worked at an extraordinary pace to develop vaccines against coronavirus. More than 80% of adults in the UK, including everyone with dementia, have now been offered at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 60% have had both doses. 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 traditional vaccines contain dead or weakened versions of the virus or bacterium, or sometimes just small pieces of these. Modern vaccines often contain small pieces of the viral or bacterial genetic code (DNA or RNA).

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.

Which coronavirus vaccines are currently approved in the UK?

At present, four 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 protect people from getting ill with COVID-19 and are safe.

  1. The first vaccine to be approved is from Pfizer and BioNTech. It contains a small piece of coronavirus genetic code to make the spike protein found on the surface of the virus. This protein triggers the body to make antibodies and T cells that will then target and destroy any natural, live virus.
  2. The second vaccine to be approved is from Oxford University and AstraZeneca. It contains DNA to make the same spike protein. 
  3. The third vaccine is from Moderna and works much like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
  4. The fourth vaccine, from Janssen, works like the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

For the first three vaccines, people will receive two injections. The second is a booster that increases effectiveness and provides longer-lasting immunity. It is really important to get both doses. The first dose may stop working without the second booster.

The Janssen vaccine is given as single dose. It is expected to be used as a further booster to care home residents ahead of winter.

How effective are the coronavirus vaccines?

Results for all four vaccines show that they are very effective at preventing symptoms of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). All four vaccines seem to work well in older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. There is some evidence that they don't work quite as well against some of the new variants of coronavirus as against the original strains. But they all still offer a high level of protection against more severe COVID-19.

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 has already reduced pressure on our NHS and social care systems.

There is now good evidence that these vaccines help stop a vaccinated person from passing coronavirus on to an unvaccinated person in the same household. This is an added benefit because – together with measures like social distancing – it should help reduce the transmission of coronavirus in the community. But people who have had the vaccine still need to follow the basic measures.

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
  • feeling or being sick.

You can take painkillers, such as paracetamol, if you need to. If your symptoms don’t get better after four days or you are worried, call NHS 111 for advice.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has recently been linked to extremely rare blood clots. As a precaution, adults under 30 in the UK are now being offered a different vaccine. Anyone who has already had one vaccine dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine with no serious side-effects should take up the second dose.

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 serious allergic 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

How can I get a coronavirus vaccine?

The vaccines have already been offered to people in huge numbers. The plan is for all adults to be offered a vaccine by the end of July 2021. 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. 

If you’ve not been invited to book a vaccine, you can check to see if you qualify and book an appointment on the NHS coronavirus vaccination website. You can also call 119 for free, between 7am and 11pm seven days a week.

All vaccines are free and you should not be asked for any payment. People will not be given a choice of which vaccine they are offered.

The guidance from the government's Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation sets out the priority groups for vaccination. 

The vaccine needs to be given twice to get long-lasting protection from the virus. People should get their second dose about 12 weeks after the first. 

Where would I go to get vaccinated?

The vaccination programme means 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).
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