COVID-19 vaccines: Your burning questions answered

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is under way in Australia … so what happens next?

After almost a year of living with the coronavirus pandemic, Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has started.

Frontline health workers, quarantine and border workers, and aged and disability care residents and staff are first in line for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was the first to be given the green light by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in January.

The TGA has also provisionally approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be produced in Australia.

A $23.9 million information campaign is letting Australians know when, how and where they can get the jab.

So what do you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine?

How will Australians get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The Pfizer vaccine will first be rolled out at 30 to 50 hospital sites, including Monash Medical Centre, Sunshine Hospital and Austin Health in Victoria, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Westmead Hospital in NSW, and Gold Coast University Hospital and Princess Alexandra Hospital in Queensland.

As the AstraZeneca vaccine and a third option – Novavax, which is yet to be approved – become available, the vaccination program will expand to more than 1000 locations including some GP surgeries and pharmacies.

When will the COVID-19 vaccine be available in Australia?

The government has a five-phase National Rollout Strategy, with Australians at highest risk of COVID to receive the vaccine first. The program is slated to start on Monday, February 23.

“The staged approach prioritises people based on risk,” says Monash University infectious diseases specialist Associate Professor Michelle Ananda-Rajah.

First priority (phase 1A) is for:

  • Quarantine and border workers
  • Frontline healthcare workers
  • Aged care and disability staff
  • Aged care and disability care residents

Phase 1b covers:

  • Australians aged 70-plus
  • Other health care workers
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 55
  • Younger adults with an underlying medical condition or disability
  • Critical and high-risk workers including defence, police, fire, emergency services and meat processing

Phase 2a is for:

  • Adults aged 50-69
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 to 54
  • Other critical and high-risk workers

Phase 2b applies to the rest of the adult population and anyone who has not yet been vaccinated from previous groups.

The final phase applies to Australians under the age of 18, if recommended.

How can you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

In Phase 1a, most vaccinations will be organised by employers or care facilities.

Eventually, there are expected to be online and non-digital options for booking vaccinations.

The vaccines will be free for all Australians and will not require a doctor’s prescription.

What’s happening with the AstraZeneca and Novavax COVID-19 vaccines?

A World Health Organisation panel declared the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – which most Australians are expected to receive – safe and effective when given over two doses, eight to 12 weeks apart.

The TGA approved its use in mid-February and it will be the only to be manufactured in Australia – so it will potentially be more widely available.

“It is extremely good news that the TGA has approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in Australia,” says Professor Bruce Thompson, Dean of the School of Health Sciences at Swinburne University.

“It is imperative that the population is vaccinated as quickly as possible, and having multiple vaccines available secures supply.”

The Novavax vaccine is dependent on trial results, due mid-2021.

How effective are the COVID-19 vaccines?

Pfizer has been found to have an efficacy of 95 per cent.

While interim results suggest AstraZeneca’s efficacy rate is around 62 per cent, the WHO report indicates this may be improved with two doses and at increased intervals.

“The AstraZeneca vaccine is a good vaccine, and the data that is arising from other nations suggest that the efficacy is higher than the original publications,” says Prof Thompson.

“Concerns of its relative lower efficacy compared to other vaccines are addressed by the more recent data suggesting higher efficacy with a greater interval between doses,” says Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at Mater Health Services and Associate Professor of medicine at the University of Queensland.

How has the COVID-19 vaccine been developed so quickly?

“The technology involved – MRNA technology – has been used for more than a decade. Vaccines have been produced for cancer, influenza, HIV and Zika virus using that technology,” says Assoc Professor Ananda-Rajah.

“The research and development that has gone on for the past decade has allowed this vaccine to be produced quickly. No shortcuts have been taken.”

Will the vaccines fight different strains of COVID-19?

COVID-19 variants have appeared in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

Research so far suggests most available vaccines will still protect against the virus and its more serious effects.

“If there are breakthrough infections in vaccinated patients, then we will need to work through what we need to change in vaccine preparations to tackle these new variants, not unlike seasonal vaccinations,” says Dr Stuart Turville, Associate Professor at The Kirby Institute, UNSW Australia.

Australians may need an annual COVID booster shot, at least for the next few years.

What are the benefits of having the COVID-19 vaccine?

“No vaccine is 100 per cent perfect but the vaccine will prevent you getting really sick from COVID,” says Assoc Professor Ananda-Rajah.

“It will turn a deadly infection into a flu-like illness that is survivable for the vast majority of people.”

Read more about the coronavirus vaccines at the federal Department of Health’s COVID-19 information site.

Written by Sarah Marinos with Claire Burke.