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What is a vaccine?

Yellow illustrated vaccine vial bottles on a green background
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Updated 8th Jan 2021 - We recommend the coronavirus page on the Government website for more up to date information.

What is a vaccine?

A vaccine is a type of medicine that train’s the body’s immune system so that it can fight a disease it hasn’t encountered before. Usually given as an injection, vaccines contain a small amount of the virus, toxin or bacteria that they’re designed to protect against. Vaccines help to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, rather than treat a disease once you’ve caught it.

Not only can a vaccine protect you from diseases, it also protects other people in your community. If enough people are vaccinated it can reduce diseases, sometimes getting rid of them completely.

How does a vaccine work?

As we’ve mentioned a vaccine usually contains a small amount of the disease (pathogen) it’s used to protect against. In many vaccines, like flu, the disease is weakened or destroyed as part of the vaccine creation process.

The small amount of the disease in the vaccine allows your immune system to create antibodies. These antibodies work to protect you from the disease if you are infected after you’ve been vaccinated. A vaccination can give you immunity for years, but some need a booster to give you full protection.

There are two main types of vaccines - live and killed vaccines. See the table below for the key differences between these two vaccines.

Live vaccine Killed vaccine
The virus or bacteria has been weakened The virus or bacteria has been destroyed
Not suitable for those with a weakened immune system Can be given to people with a weakened immune system
Offers long-term protection  Several doses or a booster vaccine are needed for full protection


Some of the COVID-19 vaccines are following a new science using RNA rather than giving a live virus. They still help to teach your immune system how to protect you from this virus. You can find out more about the COVID-19 vaccines on the Government website.

What is ‘herd immunity’?

A vaccination also helps protect others in your community, this is known as ‘herd immunity’ or ‘community immunity’. It’s harder for a disease to spread when enough people have been vaccinated. ‘Herd immunity’ helps to protect those who may not be able to have a vaccine, due to illness or a weakened immune system.

Why do we need a COVID-19 vaccine?

A COVID-19 vaccine is needed to help save lives and prevent more people becoming ill. Alongside other treatment, it will also help our lives get back to normal and end the pandemic.

If enough people receive a vaccine it will help to create community immunity which will slow down the spread of COVID-19. Without a vaccine for COVID-19 there will always be a risk of new outbreaks.

How soon can we expect the COVID-19 vaccine to become available?

The NHS began rolling out a COVID-19 vaccination programme from the second week of December 2020. This process began with the Pfizer vaccine, which was approved by the MHRA on the 2nd Dec 2020.

The other vaccines still need to go through rigorous tests and clinical trials before being approved to make sure they're safe and will help to protect people from COVID-19.

We’ll update this page when more information is available.

Will the COVID-19 vaccines be compulsory?

While the COVID-19 vaccine will most likely be advised for lots of people, it’s unlikely it will be made mandatory.  

There are lots of vaccines we’re all recommended to get as a child, teenager and later on into adulthood. These include vaccines against meningitis, measles, HPV and the flu. The government hasn’t made these vaccines compulsory, but they are a key part of keeping you safe and protected against certain illnesses.

Who will get the vaccines first?

On 2nd December 2020 the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations announced the priority list for phase 1 of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

  1. Residents in care homes for older adults and their carers
  2. All those aged 80 and over, frontline health care workers and social care workers
  3. All those aged 75 and over
  4. All those aged 70 and over. Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
  5. All those aged 65 and over
  6. All those aged 16-24 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and death
  7. All those aged 60 and over
  8. All those aged 55 and over
  9. All those aged 50 and over

The rest of the population will then be vaccinated in the spring when more vaccines become available.

Please note pregnant women, women planning to get pregnant within 3 months of their first dose and children under 16 won't be offered the vaccine, even if they fit into one of the groups above. This may change depending on the outcome of studies and trials in the future.

Who is doing COVID-19 vaccine research and where is it taking place?

There are more than 170 different COVID-19 vaccine in evaluation going on across the world. Some of the most talked about trials include the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and Novavax trials.

In November 2020 the BioNTech/Fosun Pharma/Pfizer vaccine was able to prove its effectiveness. The vaccine is up to 95% effective. This vaccine was approved by the MHRA on the 2nd Dec 2020 and will be rolled out in the UK in the following weeks.  The UK government has ordered 40 million doses of this vaccine, 800000 of which are arriving at the beginning of December. 40 million doses will be enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Also in November 2020 the Moderna vaccine was proven to be 95% effective in protecting against COVID-19. The UK government has secured 5 million doses of this vaccine, which will be enough for 2.5 million people. This is because people will need 2 doses of the vaccine. In January 2021 the vaccine was approved for use by the MHRA. The government expects these vaccines to be in the UK by spring 2021 with the potential for further doses later in the year.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine also released it’s trial findings in November 2020. The vaccine has been found to be on average 70% effective in protecting against COVID-19. There is also evidence to suggest that tweaking the dose could mean a course of 2 vaccines is up to 90% effective. The vaccine was tested on over 20000 people in the UK and Brazil. The UK government pre-ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine, which would be enough to immunise 50 million people or more, depending on the dosage. The vaccine has been assessed for its safety, effectiveness and manufacturing process. The first doses were given in January 2021. 

We will continue updating this information as we know more about when these vaccines are approved in the UK. We will also let you know if other vaccines are proven to be effective.

Can I participate in the COVID-19 vaccine trials?

You can take part in COVID-19 vaccine trials and COVID-19 research. If you would like to take part you can sign up to be contacted for coronavirus vaccine studies on the NHS website.

Can I use a numbing cream before vaccinations?

If you’re worried about pain when getting a vaccination or have a fear needles a numbing cream could help. Emla, is a numbing cream that you can apply directly to your skin before needle procedures. It’s available without a prescription online and in your local pharmacy. Just remember to let the healthcare professional know you’ve applied a topical anesthetic to your skin, so they can inject that area.

If you're displaying symptoms, you can get a free NHS test or you can request a Coronavirus (COVID-19) swab test kit from LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor.

COVID-19 swab test banner

References

www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/why-vaccination-is-safe-and-important/
www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-response-to-pfizerbiontechs-publication-of-efficacy-data-of-their-covid-19-vaccine

www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/covid-19-vaccines

www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51665497
www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-vaccine-covid-pfizer-trial-b1719607.html
www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/research/coronavirus-vaccine-research/
www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/nov/10/covid-vaccine-tracker-when-will-a-coronavirus-vaccine-be-ready
www.pfizer.co.uk/update-albert-bourla-discusses-covid-19-vaccine-efficacy-results
www.who.int/publications/m/item/draft-landscape-of-covid-19-candidate-vaccines
www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-response-to-pfizerbiontechs-publication-of-efficacy-data-of-their-covid-19-vaccine
https://investors.modernatx.com/news-releases/news-release-details/modernas-covid-19-vaccine-candidate-meets-its-primary-efficacy
www.gov.uk/government/news/government-secures-5-million-doses-of-moderna-vaccine
www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-55040635
www.astrazeneca.com/media-centre/press-releases/2020/azd1222hlr.html
www.independent.co.uk/news/health/covid-vaccine-oxford-coronavirus-study-b1760172.html
www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-authorises-pfizer-biontech-covid-19-vaccine
www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-55145696
www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-conclude-phase-3-study-covid-19-vaccine
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/940396/Priority_groups_for_coronavirus__COVID-19__vaccination_-_advice_from_the_JCVI__2_December_2020.pdf