Your Covid vaccine questions answered by an expert respiratory virologist

Less than a year after the world became aware of a deadly new coronavirus, people are receiving the first Covid vaccines in the UK this week.

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While many will be eager to get the vaccine, there is hesitation and concern about vaccinations, largely driven by online misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Dr Robert Lambkin-Williams is a respiratory virologist with more than 20 years experience in the field, and a member of Virology Consult, a consortium of experts in Virology.

He answered a few of our questions about the Covid vaccines.

Are we using a new type of vaccine, and is it safe?

“One of the vaccines, the Pfizer-BioNTech, is a brand new type of vaccine - an MRNA vaccine. It has the benefit of us being able to manufacture it quickly, which is what we've done.

“Crucially, it does not do anything to anybody's DNA - it does not rewrite anybody's DNA. mRNA is a totally different thing in that context. But this new style of vaccine does make it easier and in some ways safer to roll out.”

Will there be side effects from taking the vaccine?

“Any medicine you take will have some side effects and we know there are side effects from these vaccines. Most can be dealt with with a paracetamol.

“There is no reason to think there's anything serious, but we'll monitor it carefully - and it's gone through really tough safety tests.”

Will it hurt?

“It’s very similar to the flu vaccine - I had it a few weeks ago and barely noticed. It won’t hurt any more than that, and, interestingly, there’s research to suggest that if you smile a lot as you’re getting it, it won’t hurt as much.”

Does it provide full immunity, or just suppress the symptoms?

“Firstly, you'll need to have two vaccinations for it to be effective. You'll get some effect after one, you'll get the full effect after two.

“We don't know, particularly with the vaccine that's being rolled out this week, whether that will just suppress your symptoms, which would mean you can still pass on the virus. We don't know how our bodies will react exactly - we know it will give us immunity, and we know it's safe, but we don't know how long that immunity is going to last. And you're not 100 per cent guaranteed to be immune if you've had the vaccine. People must carry on doing the things we’ve been doing.”

Has the development of the new vaccines been rushed?

“If I asked you how long it takes to get across Central London in rush hour, you might give me one answer. But if the Queen urgently needs to get through central London, with her police escort clearing the way and all that kind of thing, then it’s going to be a much quicker journey. Everything is cleared out of the way, she doesn't deal with traffic jams or anything like that. And that's what they did with this vaccine.

“They cleared everything out of the way, focussed on this vaccine, pulled everybody together and had people working non-stop. So it has been rushed in the sense that it's been done quickly, but it's not in the sense that it's not been taken through every step of the process that needs to actually be done.”

Why has Covid-19 caused so many problems, and prompted such a drastic reaction, if it is just another type of virus that we already had some idea about?

“What really caught us out was that you can be perfectly healthy, wandering around doing everything you normally do, but actually be infected, potentially for up to 20 or more days.

“That didn't happen with SARS in the early 2000s, the originator version of this virus. When people got ill they would have a temperature and then they would become infectious. And we were able to contain that outbreak, because people would have a temperature straightaway - we knew they were ill.

“This time around people can be wandering around without any temperature, without any symptoms. And they can be spreading it to their loved ones, their colleagues, everybody. That's what took us by surprise, we did not expect that. So that is that is why it has become such an issue. And that's why testing is now still so important.”

Now that we are starting to roll out a vaccine, are you concerned that some people might become complacent about the disease again?

“Obviously we now have a vaccine available, but that's only going to be to a limited number of people. So you're looking at six, nine, maybe 12 months, before you've got enough people vaccinated, before we can be really comfortable that things are under control.

“We aren't in the clear. And the better people are right now at adhering to everything, the more we can cut infection rates now, then the less of a problem that the Christmas bubbles will create.”

What is the most important thing people should be doing to keep safe?

“Every single time you get home, wash your hands. When you get to work, wash your hands. It’s one of the best things we can be doing at the moment.”