Vaccines for coronavirus (COVID-19)

Researchers, scientists and doctors have worked at an extraordinary pace to develop vaccines against coronavirus. Lots of older people, including many of those with dementia, have been vaccinated - being in the first cohorts (or priority groups) 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 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?

Developing vaccines for coronavirus has been a huge global effort. At present, three 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.

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.

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

The third vaccine is from Moderna and works much like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. It is being included in the national vaccination programme from April 2021.

For all 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. 

How effective are the coronavirus vaccines?

Results for all three vaccines show that they are very effective at preventing symptoms of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). All three 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 will reduce pressure on our NHS and social care systems – both already stretched. 

It is not yet certain how much these vaccines also stop a vaccinated person from passing coronavirus on to others. Some reduction seems likely. This would be an added benefit because – together with measures like social distancing – it could 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 will now be 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

When will I be offered a coronavirus vaccine?

The vaccines are now being offered to people in very large numbers. Many older people and those who are ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ have already been vaccinated as they are in the first priority groups (cohorts) to get them. 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. These cohorts are:

  1. residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
  2. all those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
  3. all those 75 years of age and over
  4. all those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
  5. all those 65 years of age and over
  6. all individuals aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions (including dementia, diabetes, and heart or lung disease) – alongside the main carers of vulnerable people
  7. all those 60 years of age and over
  8. all those 55 years of age and over
  9. all those 50 years of age and over

This order is based on who has the most risk of getting severe COVID-19 and dying from coronavirus. Those most at risk are the very old or those living in care homes. People working in certain jobs, such as health and social care workers, are also more at risk of being exposed to the virus and so are also in the top categories.

Dementia is one of the underlying health conditions in group 6, along with diabetes, heart and lung conditions (for example). This means that most older people living with dementia will get the vaccine first because of their age, not their dementia. Only people younger than 65 years will be prioritised because of their condition. 

Carers of people with dementia are also included in group 6. If a carer has not already had the vaccine because of their age or other health conditions, it’s important that they check with their GP that they are registered as a carer. 

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).

The NHS has now offered a vaccine to almost everyone living in a care home. The same plan for everyone over 70 (or who is clinically extremely vulnerable) is underway to meet the mid-February 2021 target set by the government.

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. 

As well as sending out invitations, the NHS is now asking anyone who is 65 or over (or clinically extremely vulnerable) and can use the internet to book their appointment themselves on the NHS coronavirus vaccination website. If you are not online, you can call 119 for free, between 7am and 11pm seven days a week.

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