COVID-19 vaccine information

COVID-19 vaccine information

WEHI’s joint head of Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Professor Marc Pellegrini answers some popular questions about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Australia.

Which COVID-19 vaccines are being used in Australia?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine and the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for use in Australia. The national roll-out of vaccines in Australia began in February 2021. We anticipate the approval and introduction of the Moderna vaccine, which is similar to the Pfizer vaccine, in late-2021.

Why should I get vaccinated?

COVID-19 can spread quickly and widely. It has resulted in the deaths of more than 3.7 million people worldwide and more than 900 people in Australia. Vaccines strengthen your immune system by training it to quickly remember and fight specific germs. Vaccination is the most effective way to protect yourself against getting COVID-19, and also reduce the severity of the disease if you do contract it.

When you get vaccinated, you are protecting yourself and helping to protect the whole community.

Can I choose which vaccine I get?

The Australian Government has received expert advice from public health and vaccination specialists, including the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). Based on this advice, recommendations have been made about which vaccines should be used depending on age and other risk factors. Vaccine roll-out and administration is aligned with these recommendations. The best person to discuss this with is your doctor.

Are the vaccines safe?

All vaccines are thoroughly tested before they are approved for use in Australia by the TGA, this includes rigorous assessment of the vaccine’s safety, quality and effectiveness. The TGA will continue to closely monitor for suspected side effects (also known as adverse events) from the use of COVID-19 vaccines. This includes careful analysis of clinical trial data, ingredients, chemistry, manufacturing and other factors. Additionally, ATAGI will regularly update their advice to the Australian Government about the risks and benefits of vaccines as new data becomes available.

If you have any questions about the vaccine and your personal health circumstances, you should consult with your doctor or healthcare professional.

Are the vaccines effective?

All vaccines used in Australia have a proven ability to decrease severe COVID-19 and death by about 80 per cent after a single injection. After a second injection, the protection afforded by these vaccines is even higher. There is some variability in the effectiveness of vaccines but after a complete course of COVID-19 vaccines, protection from infection ranges from 80-90 per cent. This figure is dependent on many factors, including the viral variants that are circulating. Regardless, there is clear evidence that the vaccines earmarked for use in Australia are already working very well to slow down the transmission of the virus in other countries.

Are there any side effects from the vaccine?

All vaccines have potential side effects. The vaccines used in Australia to immunise people against COVID-19 do have side effects. Side effects such as a soreness at the injection site or a mild illness can occur. There are some very rare but serious side effects such as allergies with Pfizer vaccine and a very rare clotting problem associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Doctors have become very good as managing and treating these side effects such that the benefit of the vaccines greatly outweighs the risks of side effects.

Does the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine cause blood clots?

There has been a link established between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a very rare but serious side effect called Thrombosis with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (TTS).  

There is a very low chance of this side effect. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) continues to review risk estimates as new data becomes available and update advice as required.

Fortunately, diagnosis and treatment for TTS has progressed rapidly. Doctors now know the symptoms to look out for, and haematologists have identified treatments for the condition. These include intravenous immunoglobulin (a concentrate of antibodies from healthy donors) and blood thinners.

There’s no evidence people who have previously experienced blood clots, have an inherited risk of blood clots, or who take blood thinners or related medications, have any increased risk of TTS.

To read more about this topic from one of our experts, read Associate Professor Sant-Rayn Pasricha's article in The Conversation: 

Will I be monitored for side effects?

When you are vaccinated, your doctor will usually ask you to wait for 15-30 minutes afterwards, just in case you have an adverse reaction to the vaccine. If you experience any symptoms once you’ve gone home, particularly headaches or stomach pains, you should contact your doctor.

Should I have the vaccine if I have an allergy?

This is something people need to discuss with their doctor, who will assess the situation on a case-by-case basis. But generally speaking, there are no common allergies that should prevent you having a COVID vaccine.

With new vaccines it is critical to evaluate the safety after the vaccine has been licensed. Widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines suggests that severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are very rare. 

Some people are allergic to an ingredient called polyethylene glycol or PEG, which is found in more than 1,000 medications and is used in the Pfizer vaccine. You should consult with your doctor if you are allergic to PEG.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), also known as macrogol, is an ingredient in mRNA vaccines:

  • Different forms of PEG are found in tablets, laxatives, hand sanitiser gels, injectable corticosteroids, medications, cosmetics, bathroom products and colonoscopy preparation products.
  • PEG can cause contact dermatitis in some people.
  • PEG is recognised as a rare hidden allergen that can trigger anaphylaxis to multiple classes of drugs.

It is uncertain whether PEG or another ingredient may trigger COVID-19 vaccine anaphylaxis. 

Polysorbate 80 is chemically related to PEG and is an ingredient in the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Should I have the vaccine if I am pregnant, planning to become pregnant or breastfeeding?

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends that pregnant women are routinely offered the Pfizer vaccine at any stage of pregnancy. This is because the risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 is significantly higher for pregnant women and their unborn baby. 

Pregnant women are encouraged to discuss the decision in relation to the timing of vaccination with their doctor.

There is no evidence that women who become pregnant after being vaccinated against COVID-19 have an increased risk of developing complications that affect their pregnancy or their baby’s health. Getting vaccinated before conceiving means you are likely to have protection against COVID-19 throughout your pregnancy.

If you are breastfeeding, you can receive a COVID-19 vaccine at any time. You do not need to stop breastfeeding before or after vaccination.

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine in relation to pregnancy see the statement on the Department of Health's website.

Will children be vaccinated?

Children under 16 years of age are not part of the initial vaccine rollout.

How many doses of the vaccine will I receive?

Both of the COVID-19 vaccines approved in Australia require two doses. It is important for everyone to receive both doses for maximum protection.

The two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine need to be given at least 21 days apart.

The two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be given 12 weeks apart.

Can I have the COVID-19 vaccine if I have recently had the flu vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccine does not protect against the flu, so you should still have a flu shot. It is recommended people wait at least 14 days between a dose of the seasonal flu vaccine and a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech or the AstraZeneca/Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine (or vice versa).

Talk to your doctor about any other vaccines you are having or have recently had when booking in for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Will the vaccine last forever or will I need to be re-vaccinated in the future?

It is possible that the immunity from vaccination might last a year or longer but at the moment it’s unclear. People may need to be re-vaccinated at some stage in the future.

I’ve had COVID-19, do I still need to be vaccinated?

Yes, even if you have had COVID-19, you should still be vaccinated. We still don’t know how long immunity to COVID-19 lasts. If you have had COVID-19, a vaccine will likely boost your immune responses further, and it is important to receive both doses of vaccine for maximum protection.

Should people with immune conditions be vaccinated?

People with immune conditions should still be vaccinated. But, along with all people who take anti-TNF treatments or any sort of immune suppressant, they need to be aware that vaccines may not be as effective.

It is important that people continue their regular treatment for immune conditions because otherwise they could become quite sick. People who are immunosuppressed have a higher risk of developing COVID-19, so it is important these people are vaccinated. Treatments should not be stopped for vaccination. While COVID-19 vaccination may provide a lower level of protection for people on immunosuppressive drugs, it will offer some protection.

If you have an immune condition, please talk with your doctor or specialist about the COVID-19 vaccine. More information for people with allergy, immunodeficiency, autoimmunity can be found at the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy.

To read more about this topic from one of our experts, read Dr Vanessa Bryant's article in The Conversation:

Are COVID-19 vaccines free?

Yes, COVID-19 vaccines are free for everyone in Australia.

How will I know when it’s my turn to be vaccinated?

You can check the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility checker to see which phase you fall into to be vaccinated.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory?

No, the Australian Government has stated that the COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory. In the future, vaccination against COVID-19 may become a requirement for travel to certain destinations or for people working in high-risk workplaces.

Further information:

 

Information last updated 17 June 2021

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