DR TRISH BATCHELOR
Deputy Chief Health Officer
Department of Veterans’ Affairs
I recently wrote a column about the how the COVID vaccination roll-out affects you.
In addition, here are some of the common questions I am being asked about the vaccines:
We currently have two vaccines in Australia – can I chose which one I get? Are they interchangeable?
Currently the two vaccines available in Australia are known as ‘Pfizer’ or Cominarty and ‘Astra-Zeneca’. The vaccines use different technology and have different storage and transport requirements. The Pfizer vaccine has many logistical challenges due to its minus-70-degree storage requirements and is thus largely being distributed via specialised hubs in major centres. For those not in the initial 1a vaccine group, you are more likely to get the Astra-Zeneca vaccine which has the same storage requirements as the usual vaccines provided by GPs.
Both vaccines require two doses, and you must use the same vaccine for both doses. The gap between doses is different – 21 days for Pfizer and ideally 3 months for Astra-Zeneca. You will not be able to choose which vaccine you get. The good news is that real world data is showing that both of these vaccines are offering excellent protection against both severe disease and death, and very high levels of protection against any symptoms at all.
These vaccines have been developed more quickly than usual – are they safe?
There is a standard process for vaccine development that includes a series of clinical trials and many bureaucratic steps in between. There are also many pragmatic obstacles for new vaccine development including funding, finding volunteers for trials, low levels of the relevant disease in the community, and slow national approval processes. Due to the incredible impact of COVID-19 on the world, many of these barriers disappeared quickly – funding flowed from everywhere, volunteers were abundant, the level of disease transmission meant clinical trials could be completed rapidly as critical mass numbers of participants were reached quickly and bureaucratic blocks were lifted.
In Australia, all medicines must be rigorously tested on thousands of people before being registered for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The TGA has thoroughly assessed the COVID-19 vaccines we are using, and all of the usual regulatory steps have been followed. I have complete confidence in our processes. More information is on the TGA website.
What are the potential side effects?
All vaccines can cause side effects and COVID-19 vaccines are no different. Side effects show that your immune system is being activated, but having no side effects does not mean the vaccine isn’t working.
Side-effects from both COVID-19 vaccines are common but relatively mild and short lived – usually less than a couple of days. The most common side effects are injection-site pain (up to 80% of those vaccinated), general muscle aches (up to 50%), general tiredness for a few days (up to 60%) and headache (up to 65%).
For both vaccines, people under the age of 55 have slightly higher rates of side-effects. For the Pfizer vaccine there tends to be a higher incidence after the second dose, whereas the rates are lower after the second dose of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. As with all vaccines, there is a small chance of having a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. This is easily treated and is the reason why you will be asked to stay at the vaccination centre for 15 minutes after the vaccine is administered.
Recently, there have been reports from Europe of a very small number of cases of a rare type of blood clot (not your typical deep vein thrombosis in the leg) that may be linked to the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. There has been one potential case in Australia, which is being thoroughly investigated. Please speak with your GP if you have concerns about receiving the vaccine, or check the Department of Health website (health.gov.au).
Is it possible to get COVID-19 from the vaccines?
Absolutely not. It isn’t possible because the vaccines we are using are not ‘live’ vaccines. This also means the vaccines can safely be given to people with weakened immune systems who can’t receive live vaccines such as those for measles.
Should I get the vaccine if I am pregnant, breastfeeding or planning pregnancy?
Women who are planning pregnancy or who are breastfeeding can safely receive the vaccine. There is however limited data on the vaccine in pregnant women. The Health Department has developed a decision aid for pregnant women and their treating doctors. Go to health.gov.au and search for ‘COVID-19 vaccination decision guide’.
If you are pregnant I would recommend discussing this with your GP as the decision is very much case by case, e.g. are you more at risk of exposure or more severe disease?
Can I still get my usual flu vaccine? What about other vaccines? Is a gap necessary between the vaccines?
The flu vaccine is now available in Australia. A two-week gap between the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine (and other commonly administered vaccines such as pneumonia, shingles or tetanus) is required.
Do I still need to follow handwashing and physical distancing behaviours once I’ve been vaccinated?
The short answer is yes, at least for now and until a significant proportion of the population have been fully vaccinated.
What is herd immunity and when will that be achieved?
Herd immunity occurs when enough people in a community are immune to a disease such that person to person spread can no longer occur. We still don’t know if herd immunity can be achieved by COVID-19 vaccines as this depends on a number of factors, including understanding what percentage of the population needs to be immunised, and how long the vaccine is effective for. At this stage, it is considered likely that booster doses will be required in the future to sustain immunity, but we just don’t know.
The vaccine eligibility tracker says I am in phase 1b due to my underlying medical condition, but my GP clinic is not providing the vaccine. How do I prove my conditions to the vaccinating centre?
If you have a ‘My Health Record’, you can download your health summary, or you can ask your GP for a letter or copy of your health summary on the practice’s computer system, or you can sign a declaration. The eligibility tracker lists the relevant health conditions.
What should I make of all the claims out there that the vaccines are not safe?
Don’t listen to rumours. Always refer to your federal and state or territory health department websites for the most up to date information, or discuss any concerns you have with your GP.
While some medical conditions may be detected in the post-vaccination monitoring period, that does not mean they are caused by the vaccines. Countries are doing very careful post-vaccination monitoring on the various COVID-19 vaccines and any detected adverse events are being carefully examined by Australian experts.
Vaccines have been a major contributor to improvements in global health over the past century. Globally, vaccines save five lives every minute. I urge you all to get the vaccine when you become eligible. As a practising GP I am lucky enough to have received my vaccine. I can honestly say it was painless, and apart from a mild headache later that day I had no side effects.