These questions are answered by Dr Catherine Beanland, Portcullis Surgery; Dr Caron Morton, Station Drive Surgery; Rachel Robinson, Director of Public Health for Shropshire.
- Can you tell us about the vaccines and virus?
- Is the new variant of Covid-19 here in Shropshire and, if so, what impact will it have?
- Vaccine development and testing usually happens over several years. What is the evidence that these vaccines are absolutely safe to vulnerable people including pregnant women?
- Does it matter if young people catch Covid-19?
This article is first in a series.
Andy Boddington and Tracey Huffer, Shropshire Councillors for Ludlow North and East
Q1. Can you tell us about the vaccines and virus?
SARS-Cov-2 is the virus that causes the disease Covid-19. Viruses cannot exist independently of their host. In the case of SARS-Cov-2, the main host is humans, though it is also known to exist in several animal species. The virus has a spike protein on its surface which is how it attaches itself to its host. In this article, we refer to the virus and disease as Covid-19.
Covid-19 is not like the flu. It is more contagious, more deadly and is still spreading fast across a world where no-one was immune. In only 10 months, the virus has infected over 78 million people worldwide, killing 1.7 million. Covid-19 patients require intensive care in hospital at a rate six times greater than during the 2009 flu pandemic. Many survivors are faced with long-term health impacts. On 8 January 2021, the Office of National Statistics reported that one in fifty people in the UK currently have Covid-19.
There are two vaccines currently being used in the UK. They are designed differently but the result is the same. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is a Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine that instructs cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response to protect against the virus (more information). The Oxford/AstraZeneca is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus modified to look more like coronavirus, again triggering an immune response (more information). For brevity, we follow common practice and refer to these as the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines.
A third vaccine developed by Moderna was approved for UK use on 8 January 2021. It will be available in the spring and is not discussed below.
Some acronyms you will encounter in this document. Vaccines in the UK are approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care. The Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) is responsible for most health care provision in Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin. In southwest Shropshire, our GPs are grouped into a Primary Care Network (PCN).
Q2. Is the new variant of Covid-19 here in Shropshire and, if so, what impact will it have?
We do not yet have laboratory confirmation of the variant being present in Shropshire. We do, however, know that it is within the West Midlands. We need to assume it is highly likely that we have the variant within Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin given the recent rapid rise in cases. This variant is as much as 70% more transmissible than other strains and is now the most common form of the virus nationally. The methods to control the virus remain the same. Hands, face, space.
Scientists have confirmed the Pfizer is effective against this new variant. The Oxford vaccine is also likely to be effective.
Q3. Vaccine development and testing usually happens over several years. What is the evidence that these vaccines are absolutely safe to vulnerable people including pregnant women?
The testing has been thorough and all the safety and efficacy tests have been passed. Both vaccines have been through all three safety phases (as with any other vaccine or approved medicine) in their trials. Both have shown good effect against Covid-19 infection in Phase 1 to Phase 3 trials. After Phase 3, a vaccine will be licensed by the MHRA if it meets strict safety criteria and monitoring will continue.
These trials usually take years. But, during the coronavirus epidemic, organisations and teams across the world have worked openly and closely together. Academic scientists have been freed from the pressures of applying for grants. Parallel workstreams have worked on creating, testing and trialling vaccine. Tens of thousands of people volunteered for the trials, meaning that the Covid-19 vaccines have been tested on more people than many earlier vaccines.
Huge financial, human and laboratory resources have been made available to greatly reduce the length of time from vaccine creation to manufacture. The legal side of licensing a vaccine, patenting it and beginning vaccination has been fast-tracked but not at the expense of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Regulatory approval by the MHRA has worked in parallel with vaccine development instead of beginning towards the end of the development process.
Specific trials in pregnant women of the two Covid-19 vaccines have not been conducted but there is no known risk. The vaccines cannot cause infection in the mother or developing baby. If you have had the vaccine, the advice is to avoid pregnancy for two months. If you find out you are pregnant shortly after a dose of vaccine do not be alarmed. If you still need a second dose this should be postponed until after delivery. You should consult your GP if you have concerns.
Q4. Does it matter if young people catch Covid-19?
Yes. Children are highly sociable and can spread the disease to vulnerable people even when the child is asymptomatic. Some young and healthy people believe they are not at risk of becoming ill from Covid-19. That’s not the case. Although fewer young people become seriously ill with Covid-19 than older age groups, when they do become ill, they can suffer long-term damage to organs, including the heart and lungs.