Health and Science

How can I get a coronavirus shot? Here are 5 vaccination questions answered

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Key Points
  • Questions related to the coronavirus pandemic have dominated search engines over the past year.
  • More recently, and as vaccines have started to be rolled out, many people are asking when and where they can get a jab.
  • Research into coronavirus vaccines continues, with researchers now looking into "second-generation" jabs to target variants of the virus.
Medical officer prepares the administrations for mass Covid-19 vaccination program for health workers in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on February 4 2021.
NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images

It's no surprise that questions related to the coronavirus pandemic have dominated search engines over the past year.

More recently, and as vaccines have started to be rolled out, many people are asking when and where they can get a jab, what (if any) side effects there could be, what happens after a first dose and how long immunity to Covid-19 might last.

Here are the answers to some of the most widely asked questions:

How can I get a coronavirus vaccine?

Where, and equally importantly, when you are able to get a coronavirus vaccine depends on several factors, including which country and state you're in, your age and in some cases, your profession.

Any serious medical conditions you might have could also determine how quickly you can get a Covid vaccine.

In the U.S. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes recommendations for who should be offered the vaccine first. But each state has its own plan for deciding who will be vaccinated first and how they can receive vaccines. It recommends that you contact your local health department for more information in your area.

In the U.K., there are four priority groups targeted to receive the vaccine first: the elderly, care home workers and health care staff, those over 70 and anyone extremely vulnerable. From mid-February, it's hoped that the vaccine could be rolled out to more priority groups (essentially, all people aged over 50). To get the Covid vaccine, you have to have been contacted by your doctor and invited to make a vaccination appointment.

In the EU, which is struggling with supplies, the first doses are envisaged for priority groups identified by the bloc: health care professionals and people aged over 60. How and when you can access the vaccine depends on which country you live in, however. A full list of EU members' vaccination strategies and priority groups is here, from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Which Covid vaccine is the best?

This question has been asked many times over the last few months, particularly after late-stage clinical trials emerged from major vaccine makers showing different levels of efficacy. It has also become a salient question as regions deal with supply issues too.

For example, the U.K. approved and rolled out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the AstraZeneca vaccine but it has more readily-accessible supplies of the latter as it's produced in the U.K.

James Shaw, 82, receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from advanced nurse practitioner Justine Williams, at the Lochee Health Centre in Dundee, Scotland, Britain January 4, 2021.
Andy Buchanan | Reuters

Essentially, clinical trials found the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were found to be around 95% effective in preventing serious Covid-19 infection, while the candidate from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford was found to have an average efficacy of around 70%, all after two doses. Changing the interval between the first and second dose has been found to improve the efficacy of the AstraZeneca candidate, however.

Eager to nip arguments over "who gets which vaccine" in the bud, governments are keen to stress that any vaccines that have been authorized for use have gone through the most rigorous trials, and that the most important thing is that the vaccines that are being deployed dramatically reduce the risk of serious infection, hospitalization and death from Covid-19.

How much protection do I have after a first dose?

That the coronavirus vaccines require an initial dose, followed by a "booster" shot, is not unusual; many vaccines require two doses to work.

The first dose prompts the body to recognize the virus and primes your immune system to fight it while the booster shot strengthens the immune response mounted by the body. It's important to note that immunity takes time to build — it usually takes a week or two for immunity to start building — and is not immediate after receiving the first dose.

Moderna says its vaccine is 80.2% effective 28 days after the first dose (although this immunity takes time to build, it is around 50% effective 14 days after the first dose, data shows) while Pfizer has said it and BioNTech's vaccine is 52% effective after a single dose, but there have been several studies arguing that it could be lower, and higher, than that.

The CDC recommends that the Pfizer-BioNTech doses should be given three weeks (21 days) apart and Moderna doses should be given a month (28 days) apart, and not earlier than those intervals. When it comes to whether there can be a longer delay before the second doses are given, experts and vaccine makers are split.

AstraZeneca said Wednesday that a longer interval before the first and second doses improves the efficacy of the vaccine, but Pfizer and BioNTech have warned against a delay, saying there is no data to support such a policy. Delaying the second dose has become standard policy in the U.K. as it aims to offer partial protection for as many people as possible.

Oxford University researchers published a study on Wednesday that found that the AstraZeneca vaccine was 76% effective from day 22 after the initial dose, and up to 90 days afterward, a finding it said backed up having a 12-week interval between doses.

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Are there any side effects after having the coronavirus vaccine?

Vaccine trials have carefully monitored trial participants for any side effects from their candidates, and none of the vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S., U.K. or EU have caused serious side effects.

However, anyone who has a history of severe allergic reaction to any other vaccine injection is being told to make this known before receiving a coronavirus vaccine. The CDC has a raft of information on vaccines and allergies here.

Policy makers said recipients of any of the coronavirus vaccines might expect to experience "very common side effects" often associated with any immunization, however. According to U.K. government guidance, these can include:

  • Having a painful, heavy feeling and tenderness in the arm where you had your injection. This tends to be worst around one to two days after the vaccine.
  • Feeling tired.
  • Headache.
  • General aches, or mild flu like symptoms.

The U.K. guidance states that "although feeling feverish is not uncommon for 2 to 3 days, a high temperature is unusual and may indicate you have Covid-19 or another infection. An uncommon side effect is swelling of the glands." It says that if symptoms worsen, individuals should seek advice from a doctor or nurse.

How long does immunity last?

This is the million-dollar question and one that vaccine makers and researchers are still waiting to discover.

Given the rapid development and trialing of the coronavirus vaccines currently being rolled out, and with vaccination programs only having begun in December, it is too soon to know how long the immune response induced by vaccines lasts.

Vaccine makers are also now turning to the creation of so-called "second generation" vaccines that can tackle variants in the virus that have emerged, notably in the U.K. and South Africa.

On Wednesday, pharmaceutical firms GlaxoSmithKline and CureVac said they are trying to develop Covid vaccines that target several variants in one product.

People who have been infected with Covid are likely to have some form of immunity for at least five months, early results from a major study in the U.K. showed in January.

Healthcare workers receive a dose of the Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Covid-19 vaccine at the Istora Senayan Sports Complex in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
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