What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine


You’ve probably heard and seen a lot in the media about promising results from research trials of different COVID-19 vaccines, but with so much information, it can be difficult to separate the facts from the myths.

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To help you get a better understanding of the current state of play, Bupa’s Director of Clinical Governance Dr Zoe Wainer answers some of the most commonly asked questions.

Why is it important to have a COVID-19 vaccine?

The aim of a vaccine is to stimulate our immune systems to defend us against a disease. Equipping our immune systems against COVID-19 should help us to either not develop COVID-19 in the first place, or have the ability to fight the disease better if we get it so that we experience less serious effects.

Will a COVID-19 vaccine be effective?

If a COVID-19 vaccine passes the effectiveness criteria of various medicine authorities around the world and is approved for sale, it will likely have been shown to make a notable difference in reducing or preventing illness due to COVID-19.

However, we’re not sure yet how long immunity to COVID-19 from a vaccine might last, and immunity after vaccination can differ between age groups, biological sex, ethnic backgrounds, and other individual factors. So there are still questions that need to be answered from published, peer-reviewed results of current trials of vaccine candidates.

Will a COVID-19 vaccine be safe?

Vaccines go through a stringent process to ensure they are safe including being trialled on thousands of people to make sure they’re generally safe and effective for healthy people, and to uncover possible adverse effects before they go to market. They also must be approved by regulatory authorities such as Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration or New Zealand’s Medsafe. So you can rest assured that vaccines approved in Australia and New Zealand, including the annual flu vaccine, are generally safe for that reason.

When are we likely to see a COVID-19 vaccine available?

Despite all the stories in the media around a vaccine being just months away, at the moment it’s still unclear when a successful vaccine will be ready for general use. There are serious contenders in the race to develop an effective, safe vaccine, which is truly amazing – this process normally takes up to 10 years from early development to manufacture! But with a lot of effort and funding, the process has been accelerated to try and produce a vaccine as soon as possible without compromising on safety.

We will know more in the coming weeks and months about when a vaccine is approved for public use.

Which vaccines will be available in Australia and New Zealand if successful?

The Australian Government has currently invested in four candidate vaccines which use a range of technologies. Diversifying the investment among advanced candidates is a way to increase the likelihood of having a safe and effective vaccine to distribute as soon as possible.

The four vaccines are from:

  • University of Oxford/AstraZeneca
  • University of Queensland/CSL
  • Novavax
  • Pfizer/BioNTech

The Australian Government has also joined the international COVAX Facility to open up the possibility of access to a suite of other potential COVID-19 vaccines.

The New Zealand Government has also expressed interest in participating in the COVAX Facility and has set aside funding to enter into similar advance purchasing arrangements with vaccine developers.

Who will get the vaccine?

To stop the pandemic, most of the world’s population will eventually need to be immunised with an effective, safe vaccine. Experts estimate that 50-80% of the population needs to be immune to the virus to stop it spreading easily.

But this is an enormous logistical challenge. Millions, even billions, of doses of the vaccine will need to be made, which must then be transported securely around the world, often at very low temperatures. All this takes time, so supply is likely to be limited, particularly when the vaccine is first made available on the market.

The good news is that governments and health organisations around the world recognise that it’s especially important to immunise high-risk groups first, and they generally agree that these include: healthcare workers (including those working in aged care), people with chronic medical conditions (which generally includes older people), people with a disability, and people in work required for continuing functioning of society (e.g. teachers).

This targeted strategy should help prevent those most vulnerable from getting seriously ill, while we work to achieve high enough levels of immunity across the community to keep most people as safe as we can.

Will life return to ‘normal’ once we have a vaccine?

It’s really hard to know if we will return to life as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if and when we have approved, safe COVID-19 vaccines, reaching appropriate levels of immunity in the community will also depend on how many people are able to get access to the vaccine and how many get vaccinated.

So in the meantime, don’t forget to keep up all the other measures we know help to keep the numbers of new COVID-19 infections low – wash your hands regularly, maintain physical distancing, avoid crowded places if you can, wear a mask especially when you can’t physically distance, stay home if you’re sick, and get tested if you have flu-like symptoms.

Media reference number: 20/102