COVID-19 vaccines: Your burning questions answered

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

After more than a year of living with the coronavirus pandemic, Australia’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout is ramping up.

Frontline health workers, quarantine and border workers, and aged and disability care residents and staff were first in line.

But in the wake of the latest Covid-19 outbreak in Victoria, which sparked the state’s fourth lockdown, vaccination is now available to a broader range of Australians.

National Cabinet agreed that, in line with the advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), the AstraZeneca vaccine is to be prioritised for people aged 50 and over, while those under 50 will be given the Pfizer vaccine.

A $23.9 million information campaign has kept Australians in the know on 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?

AstraZeneca vaccines are being delivered via GP-led respiratory clinics, general practices, Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Services, and state and territory-run vaccination clinics.

People eligible for a Pfizer vaccine can receive it at selected clinics or state-run vaccination hubs.

Residential aged care and disability care facilities may receive their vaccine from providers who will deliver it on-site.

See the eligibility checker to find out when and where you can receive a vaccine.

If you are eligible, you will be able to view vaccination locations and book an appointment.

If you are not yet eligible, register your interest so that you can be notified when you are able to book.

How is the Covid-19 vaccine rolling out in Australia?

The government introduced a five-phase National Rollout Strategy, with Australians at highest risk of Covid-19 first in line for the faccine.

With the majority of high-risk Australians vaccinated, and in response to the Victorian outbreak, more people are now eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. These include:

  • All adults aged 40-49
  • All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 16-49
  • NDIS participants aged 16 and over, and carers of NDIS participants of any age
  • Temporary visa holders aged under 50 years who are currently in Australian and have been approved for return travel to Australia through the travel exemption process.

These are in addition to the following groups who were already eligible:

  • All adults aged 50 and over
  • Quarantine and border workers
  • Frontline healthcare workers
  • Aged care and disability staff and residents
  • People aged 16 and over with an underlying medical condition or significant disability
  • Critical and high-risk workers including defence, police, fire, emergency services and meat processing

Some states and territories may have different eligibility criteria based on their Covid-19 situation, so it is important to keep up to date with the advice in your state:

How many doses of the Covid-19 vaccine do you need?

The two Covid-19 vaccines currently approved in Australia each require two doses.

The two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine need to be administered at least 21 days apart, while the AstraZeneca vaccine should be given 12 weeks apart.

The ATAGI decided this would create the best immune response, ensure the most effective protection and maximise broader community coverage.

Can you choose which Covid-19 vaccine you receive?

No, the average person won’t have a choice.

Specific vaccines will be administered based on availability and clinical guidance on appropriate vaccines.

The vaccines are free for everyone in Australia, even if you are not an Australian citizen or permanent resident.

You do not require a doctor’s prescription.

What’s happening with the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine?

The federal government had ordered 51 million doses of the Novavax vaccine, which if proven effective will be available in the second half of the year.

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 indicates this may be improved with two doses and at increased intervals.

These percentages refer to their ability to prevent infection, but both have been approved as very effective at preventing serious disease.

“Concerns of (AstraZeneca’s) relative lower efficacy compared to other vaccines are addressed by the more recent data suggesting higher efficacy with a greater interval between doses,”Mater Health Services infectious diseases director Paul Griffin says.

A phase 3 study of the Novavax vaccine in the UK showed 96.4 per cent efficacy against the original Covid-19 strain and 86.3 per cent against the UK variant.

How likely is blood clotting from the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine?

A rare side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine is blood clots or thrombosis.

However, the World Health Organisation declared the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine safe and effective when given over two doses, eight to 12 weeks apart.

Overall, the Department of Health advises that thrombosis is estimated to occur in about six cases from every one million people vaccinated, but the rate is estimated to be 20-40 cases per million in those under 50 – hence the priority on the Pfizer vaccine in this age group.

While very rare, thrombosis can occur four to 26 days after vaccination.

Symptoms include abdominal pain and severe headaches that do not ease with pain relief.

People should seek medical attention immediately if they experience these symptoms.

How was the Covid-19 vaccine developed so quickly?

“The technology involved – MRNA technology – has been used for more than a decade,” Monash University infectious diseases specialist Associate Professor Michelle Ananda-Rajah says.

“Vaccines have been produced for cancer, influenza, HIV and Zika virus using that technology.

“The research and development that has gone on for the past decade has allowed this vaccine to be produced quickly.”

Will the vaccines fight different strains of Covid-19?

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,” The Kirby Institute UNSW Associate Professor Dr Stuart Turville says.

Clinical trials are working to find out if we will need annual or longer booster doses to ensure long-term immunity.

Australians may need an annual Covid-19 booster shot, at least for the next few years.

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

Vaccines strengthen your immune system by training it to quickly remember and fight specific germs.

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

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

Even those who have already had Covid-19 should still have the vaccine to help protect against getting it again or passing it on to someone else.

What are the likely side effects from the Covid-19 vaccine?

According the federal Department of Health, any side effects are typically mild and may only last a few days.

Normal temporary side effects of the vaccines include pain where the needle was injected, tiredness, fever or muscle aches.

Some will experience flu-like symptoms that feel worse when compared to other common vaccinations, and may need time to recover.

For the Pfizer vaccine, these symptoms are more common after the second dose, while they are more likely after the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

See your doctor, nurse or go to hospital if you are concerned about your condition after vaccination.

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

Written by Sarah Marinos with Claire Burke, Dan Imhoff. Updated June 2021.