Hope is here! As the first Covid-19 jab gets the go ahead for use in the UK as early as next WEEK, we put your questions to the experts

 News that a vaccine for Covid-19 has been approved for use in the UK – and with two more jabs hopefully on the way – has brought joy after a bleak year.  

It was the incredible news we've all been praying for, and then it got even better: first one, then two, then three vaccines were found to fight Covid-19 – with more potentially around the corner.

In the space of just a few weeks, we went from a dark future filled with lockdowns and tiers to a brighter one, filled with friends, family and hope.

News that a vaccine for Covid-19 has been approved for use in the UK brought hope to many

News that a vaccine for Covid-19 has been approved for use in the UK brought hope to many

But while these new vaccines could save tens of thousands of lives, many people are worried about having them.

Should they be?


Vaccines save millions of lives every year and, after clean water, they're the most effective way in the world to ensure good health.

They all work by mimicking the infection they've been designed to prevent then tricking the body into thinking it's got that infection. The body responds by producing antibodies to fight it off. That way, when the real infection strikes, the immune system knows exactly what to do and springs into action to stop you getting infected at all.

Traditional vaccines work by either giving you a very weak dose of the infection or an inactivated version of it – both stimulate the immune system in this way to produce antibodies.

But the Covid-19 vaccines work slightly differently. Two – made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – use a new method called messenger RNA (mRNA).

It works by tricking the body's cells into making 'spike protein' – the outside edge of the coronavirus that allows it to latch on to human cells. Our immune system reacts to this by producing antibodies and is therefore primed to do the same if it meets the real virus.

Because it's not an organism, it should be easier to produce at scale.

The Oxford vaccine, developed with AstraZeneca, is an adenovirus vector vaccine, a method that's been around for years that uses a harmless virus to stimulate the immune system.

'The best way I can describe this is that the adenoviruses chosen for viruses are harmless infections,' says Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England.

'In effect this is a 'hitchhiker' virus. You can put genetic material [DNA] corresponding to the coronavirus spike protein inside the adenovirus, then, when you give that as a vaccine, the genetic material from the coronavirus hitches a lift inside the cell. You then get mRNA produced which causes production of spike protein, and then you get the production of antibodies.'

The fact it's tried-and-tested technology is one of the reasons the vaccine could be developed so quickly.


Usually vaccines take years to develop. They have to go through a rigorous process of three phases of testing – with each trial using more and more people – followed by approval by the regulators.

But the Covid vaccines have taken less than nine months to get to the final stage. How is that possible? The simple answer is that while testing hasn't been skimped on, all other processes have been done in the shortest time possible.

Before starting any trial, scientists must seek permission from the Health Research Authority, which includes a Research Ethics Committee meeting. They have to find a date when 15 different experts can attend this, and often more than one meeting is needed.

Professor Sir Terence Stephenson says the process of developing a vaccine has been 'more efficient'

Professor Sir Terence Stephenson says the process of developing a vaccine has been 'more efficient'

With Covid, they let coronavirus vaccine requests jump the usual queue, and the authority made its decision virtually. 

'Nobody has to travel anywhere,' says Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, chair of the NHS research ethics regulator, the HRA. 'You get a Zoom or Teams meeting in the diary, you send papers electronically, so that's all been more efficient.'

It also helped that with so many non-Covid research projects on hold, they had just 700 Covid applications to approve this year compared to the normal 6,000 research applications a year.

'We can do them faster because there are fewer of them,' says Professor Stephenson.

All Covid vaccines went through the three phases of testing. In phase three, Pfizer tried its vaccine on 45,000 people, Moderna on 30,000 and AstraZeneca on around 24,000 with 10,000 more to follow.

The fact that hundreds of thousands had already volunteered to trial a vaccine before they were needed also helped the research. They included the elderly (the most important group for a Covid vaccine to work on), different ethnicities and those with underlying health conditions.


With vaccine testing, volunteers are split into two groups – one is given the real injection, the other a dummy. They're then monitored over the next few weeks or months to see if they become ill.

'What you're looking for,' says Professor Van-Tam, 'is none, or very few, in the vaccine arm getting the disease and, it's sad to say, a lot more in the dummy arm getting the disease – if you don't have that comparison, you can't prove the vaccine works.'

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, will be having the jab

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, will be having the jab

Sometimes, if the disease is rare, this can take years. But with coronavirus being rife, cases in the dummy group soon racked up, while the vaccine side stayed low in the three Covid vaccines.

'The sad irony is that if you do get massive case numbers really quickly, you also get a vaccine answer very quickly,' says Professor Van-Tam.


The UK Government has just announced that it has accepted the recommendation from the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to approve Pfizer/BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine for use.

This follows months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA who have concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.

The MHRA is an independent body, whose chief executive, Dr June Raine, insists wouldn't pass an unsafe vaccine just because we're desperate for it.

'People can be completely confident that Covid-19 vaccines will only be available once they have met robust standards of safety, quality and effectiveness,' she says.

Dr June Raine says the MHRA wouldn't pass a vaccine just because we're all desperate for it

Dr June Raine says the MHRA wouldn't pass a vaccine just because we're all desperate for it

'A wide range of data are considered, from the laboratory studies to the clinical trials, how the vaccine is made in the factory and how it remains stable once it goes out to be deployed.

'Our scientific reviews and assessments are done to very rigorous standards, and only once the manufacturer complies with all the requirements will a vaccine be available.'

However, the process has been done by the MHRA in the shortest time possible by making sure tests are done in parallel rather than one after the other.


No drug is without side effects, but so far with the Covid vaccines they appear very mild – such as a sore arm after the injection – and disappear quickly.

And while scientists can't rule out a problem in the future, Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, thinks it is unlikely.

'There doesn't seem to be any serious [side effect] looming in any of the vaccines, despite the fact they've all been tested on tens of thousands of people,' she says. 'I think if there had been something that was relatively common, we would have seen it by now.'

However, experts will be on the lookout for other side effects in the future, just in case. 


The three Covid vaccines are safe for almost all the population, even those with immunological problems, because they're not made from living organisms.

However, pregnant women are not going to be offered the jab until after they've had their baby as the vaccines haven't been tested on them.


Following its approval, the vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech will be made available across the UK from next week. When it's your turn, you will receive a notification. Britain has also agreed to buy 100 million doses from Oxford-AstraZeneca and millions more from Moderna once they are approved for use.

Immunisation chief Dr Mary Ramsay believes serious side-effects of the new jab are unlikely

Immunisation chief Dr Mary Ramsay believes serious side-effects of the new jab are unlikely

Each is delivered in two doses, about a month apart; it's not yet known how long protection lasts.

So far, it's thought the vaccines lessen symptoms rather than stop the spread of the virus, although there's some evidence the Oxford vaccine does both.

Patients won't be able to choose which vaccine they get, and the speed at which the immunisation programme proceeds will be determined by how quickly the drug companies can supply doses.

Those receiving the vaccine will be prioritised, with residents and staff in care homes being vaccinated first, followed by those aged over 80 and health and social care workers. Clinically extremely vulnerable people (not including pregnant women and those under the age of 18) will be next in line.


'Yes, I will be having it,' says Professor Van-Tam. 'I'm prepared to be witnessed having it on camera. If I could be at the very front of the queue, I would be. But I can't because privilege and position don't count.'

*Covid vaccine trials are still continuing. If you'd like to take part, go to nhs.uk/researchcontact


Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, a British specialist in influenza, epidemiology and pandemics, is England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer.

Dr Mary Ramsay is a consultant epidemiologist and Head of Immunisation at Public Health England.

Dr June Raine is CEO of the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which is responsible for ensuring medicines work and are safe.

Professor Sir Terence Stephenson is chair of the NHS research ethics regulator the Health Research Authority (HRA).

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