The following information is based on the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccines information, available at health.gov.au.
COVID-19 Vaccine Information webinar
In May 2021, Prof. Peter Wark (Senior Staff Specialist: Respiratory & Sleep) joined us for a webinar to discuss the COVID-19 vaccinations and topics including:
- How the vaccines work
- Why we need two doses of the vaccine
- The approval process for COVID-19 vaccinations
- Differences between available vaccines
- Possible side effects
- Should individuals with lung disease and/or lung cancer get the vaccine?
Please note: the information in this resource was current at the time of release. As this is an evolving situation please check information from your treating doctor for advice on the COVID-19 vaccine.
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.
Which vaccine should I get?
There are currently two COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Australia: AstraZeneca and Pfizer. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends that adults under the age of 60 receive the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine. This is in response to a rare but serious side effect involving blood clotting. However, those under 60 are eligible for AstraZeneca, as it is registered for use for that age group. Talk to your GP about the best option for your individual circumstances.ATAGI also recommends people of all ages who have had the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine without serious adverse effects should have their second dose of AstraZeneca.
How do I know if I am eligible?
From May, the Government expanded its vaccine rollout to include anyone over 50 years of age. A number of states have also made the vaccine available to people aged 40-49. Complete the Eligibility Checker to find out your status and make a booking. You can also monitor your state’s health website for further local updates.
How do I book my vaccine?
- Go to the Government’s Eligibility Checker and by answering a few easy questions, you can find out when you’re eligible to receive the vaccine, and which of the vaccines will be available to you.
- If you are eligible, the checker will identify options to book your vaccine based on a postcode search, whether that be via online or phone booking.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 020 080 or check your own state’s health website.
- Download our free Vaccination Tracker to keep track of your appointments.
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 state-run hubs, hospitals, general practices, health clinics, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and pharmacies which have expressed interest and been approved. All COVID-19 vaccinations administered will be recorded on to the Australian Immunisation Register.
How effective are the approved vaccines in preventing severe illness or hospitalisation?
Health authorities say the vaccines approved in Australia are both extremely effective in preventing severe cases and also extremely effective in providing protection against most variants of the virus.
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 secured 195 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in total, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, plus Novovax and Moderna which are still awaiting TGA approval.
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?
The Government advises those with mobility challenges contact their GP to discuss options for a home visit. Vaccines are available through GP and respiratory clinics, Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Services and, in some states, mass vaccination hubs. Monitor the Department of Health website, plus your state’s health website, for updates and go to the Eligibility Checker to find out your vaccination status.
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?
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommend people who are immunocompromised should be among the priority groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccines because of their increased risk of severe illness with COVID-19. Cancer Australia has compiled specific FAQs about COVID-19 vaccines for people affected by cancer. If you’re living with cancer, you should discuss your individual circumstances with your healthcare team.
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.