The following information is based on the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccines information, available at health.gov.au.
About the COVID-19 vaccine
How does the COVID-19 vaccine work?
Like many vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine trains your immune system to recognise a virus, in this case the one that causes COVID-19, as dangerous and fight it. This vaccine will work in the same way that other vaccines you may already receive do, such as influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia. Some vaccines contain either inactive or weakened versions of the virus that causes the infection, while others teach our bodies how to make a protein that triggers an immune response in our bodies. However, they are all designed to allow your body to develop a supply of defensive white blood cells that will remember how to fight the virus. This process can take a few weeks so it is still possible to become unwell if you are infected by the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after receiving the vaccine.
What is the difference between the vaccinations currently being administered to Australians?
Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines use the body’s own cells to produce a protein that is unique to the virus. Once this protein has developed, the body’s immune system automatically produces the cells needed to destroy it. It learns and remembers this defensive process and will activate that process if it comes across the protein again. However the two vaccines use different technologies to stimulate the immune response in the body.
The Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored at very low temperatures (-70C or below), is known as an mRNA vaccine. While some vaccines use a weakened or inactive germ to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines teach our cells to make protein, in this case a harmless piece of the spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. When our immune system detects the protein, which doesn’t belong, it starts making antibodies and commits this process to memory.
The AstraZenca vaccine, which can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures, is known as a viral vector vaccine. This type of vaccine uses a modified version of another virus, in this case a common cold virus, which has been altered to look like coronavirus. As with an mRNA vaccine, the body’s immune system kicks in, starts making antibodies and primes to attack the virus.
There are also differences in the time and dosing required. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses, 21 days apart while AstraZeneca’s needs two doses given 4-12 weeks apart. The first dose helps your body recognise the virus and starts the immune response, and the second dose helps to strengthen that immune response to better prepare your body to fight the real virus if needed.
Have the vaccines been through the required approval process?
Yes, they have. Given the urgency, this approval has been fast-tracked but no corners have been cut. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has a rigorous process covering safety, quality and effectiveness. Before any vaccine is approved, it is tested extensively through laboratory research, animal studies and human clinical trials. It is also worth noting that researchers started work on COVID-19 vaccinations early last year, soon after cases first started emerging worldwide. Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved by the TGA.
Are there other vaccinations being trialled?
There are many vaccines being developed and trialled around the world. Novavax is another being developed in Australia while there are many more being developed globally.
Where will the vaccines be administered?
Vaccines will be administered at hospitals, general practices, health clinics, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and pharmacies which have expressed interest and been approved. All COVID-19 vaccinations will go on to the Australian Immunisation Register.
How effective are the relative vaccines?
Health authorities say the vaccines that have been developed and approved are extremely effective in preventing severe cases. The Pfizer vaccine has a reported efficacy of 95 per cent and the AstraZeneca vaccine, as of January, 70 per cent and that figure is rising as further data becomes available. The World Health Organisation has also backed the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for all ages. Efficacy rates mean that, for example, the vaccine prevents COVID-19 disease in 95 per cent of people who receive it. i
Does this make one better than the other?
No. Both vaccines, through trials and research to date, have indicated they can be effective in protecting against contracting severe COVID-19 cases.
When will they be available in Australia and what are the priority groups?
The first group of Australians started to receive the vaccinations on February 22. The Government’s priority is to “protect the most vulnerable” first, which includes health and aged care workers, those aged over 70 and adults with an underlying medical condition; which includes people with a chronic lung disease. The Government says it will continue to release further details regarding priority groups and vaccination timings through an ongoing public information campaign.
The Government says everyone who wants a vaccine should have been offered one by the end of October this year.
Will older people with diseases be prioritised above older people without diseases?
The Government has stated that all people aged over 70 will be included in Phase 1 of the vaccine roll-out. The Department of Health has listed those with chronic lung disease and chronic inflammatory conditions as among those at “high or moderate risk” and therefore in the initial phase (1B) of vaccination eligibility.
How will I know when it is my turn to receive the vaccine?
For the initial Phase 1A group, either the Government or your employer will let you know via official channels. For later groups, updated information will be released by the Government. You can check where you are in the queue courtesy of the Government’s eligibility checker (click here).
Why do we need to have two doses spaced apart?
The first dose “primes the pump” (gets the antibodies going), the second trains the T cells which hold the memory of the virus for future infections.ii
Will there be enough vaccines available for everyone?
The Government has purchased 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, having announced an additional 10m doses on February 4, 2021, and has 53.8m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine (manufactured here in Australia) on order, along with 51m Novavax doses.
How soon will the vaccine have an impact on COVID-19 numbers?
It is too early to know when these current vaccines will enable Australia, or countries worldwide, to achieve “herd immunity” (enough people in community protected from contracting COVID-19); or when/if they will enable a “return to normal”. The key at this stage is to reduce the number of people infected and prevent severe cases requiring hospitalisation. Safe and effective vaccines can reduce the health, social and economic impact of the pandemic and save lives. Social distancing and good hygiene habits will, however, remain essential.
Vaccines and lung conditions
Can I receive the vaccine at home if I have concerns about visiting a medical practitioner?
The Federal Government has called for expressions of interest from accredited general practices to administer the vaccine but at this stage, there have been no announcements regarding home vaccinations. As with all such information, it is best to monitor the Department of Health website (health.gov.au) for updates as they occur.
Do I need to space out my influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations?
The recommended minimum gap between an influenza vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine is 14 days. Your GP or health specialist can provide more information regarding the best way to proceed with both vaccinations.
Could the vaccine potentially have adverse effects on other medication or on those with a lung condition?
While there are currently no known reactions with other medications, all medicines can have side effects, most minor and temporary such as soreness around where you received the needle and mild fever. These can be a sign that your body is mounting an immune responseiii. It is important to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have any concerns, particularly regarding other medication you may already be taking.
The Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA) recommends that people with a weakened immune system discuss COVID-19 vaccination with their doctor or healthcare provider. The TGA will continue to monitor vaccines so that the government can respond to any safety concerns.
Is there any specific advice regarding COVID-19 vaccinations for lung cancer patients?
Not at this stage. Cancer Australia is working with the Government’s Department of Health to communicate updates as new information emerges (canceraustralia.gov.au).
Can I get sick from the vaccine?
As stated above, all medicines can have side effects, generally minor and temporary, and the TGA will continue to monitor vaccines. Serious reactions are rare.
Who can I talk to if I have further concerns about getting the vaccine?
We recommend speaking with your treating healthcare team about the COVID-19 vaccine and your healthcare plan.