COVID-19 vaccine - What you need to know

Answers to the most common questions about coronavirus vaccine development.

23 February 2021

Vaccines for COVID-19 are critical to bringing the pandemic under control when combined with other safety protocols such as regular hand washing with soap under running water, wearing of masks in all public places and physical distancing.

With several promising vaccine candidates in the pipeline, some under review for approval and the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines approved for use by a number of stringent national regulatory bodies, the race for a safe and effective vaccine has entered into a new phase.

The threat to children posed by COVID-19 is enormous, extending far beyond the immediate physical effects of the disease.

As lockdown restrictions continue or are re-imposed, children’s access to essential health services may be seriously affected. The resulting reductions in routine healthcare coverage levels and a looming recession are threatening the health and the future of a generation of children.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions you might have about COVID-19 vaccines.

What is COVAX?

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator is an initiative to speed up the development, production and equal access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.

It is collaboration of governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy, with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

COVAX is one of the pillars of ACT and is focused on vaccines. It is the principal effort to ensure that everyone in all corners of the world will get access to COVID-19 vaccines once they are available, regardless of who they are.

The COVAX Facility - led by Gavi - the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) - will help to maximise the chances of people in the 92 participating countries get access to COVID-19 vaccines as quickly, fairly and safely as possible. 

Why do we need COVAX?

It is necessary because without it there is a real risk that the majority of people in the world will go unprotected against the COVID-19 virus, and this would allow the virus and its impact to continue unchecked.

COVAX has been created to maximise the chances of successfully developing COVID-19 vaccines and manufacture them in the quantities needed to end the crisis, and in doing so ensure that ability to pay for them does not become a barrier for any country which needs to access them.

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be ready?

Developing a safe and effective vaccine takes time, but thanks to the significant investment in research and development and global cooperation, scientists have been able to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 in record time, while still maintaining robust, evidence-based and rigorous regulatory standards.

On 31 December 2020, WHO listed the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine (BNT162b2) for emergency use, making it the first to receive emergency validation from WHO since the outbreak began a year earlier. The WHO Emergency Use Listing Procedure (EUL) is a risk-based procedure for assessing and listing unlicensed vaccines with the ultimate aim of expediting the availability of these products to people affected by a public health emergency.

There are currently more than 200 additional vaccine candidates (56 in clinical and 166 in pre-clinical development) under development, with many in clinical trials. A number of these vaccine candidates are in Phase III clinical trials – the final step before a vaccine is approved. 

But it’s important to remember that the journey from developing a vaccine to licensing it, producing it at scale and using it widely is a long one. Once a vaccine receives the required approval, it will then be critical that it is made accessible, in a timely and equitable manner, to reach those that need it most. That’s where UNICEF and its partners come in. 

UNICEF will leverage its unique experience as the largest single vaccine buyer in the world by collaborating with the PAHO Revolving Fund and the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility) in what could possibly be the world's largest and fastest procurement and supply of vaccines. 

>>See the lengths to which UNICEF and partners go to ensure that vaccines reach every child in Ghana - the Journey of Two Drops

How are vaccines being developed?

Vaccines work by mimicking an infectious agent – viruses, bacteria or other microorganisms that can cause a disease. This ‘teaches’ our immune system to rapidly and effectively respond against it. 

Traditionally, vaccines have done this by introducing a weakened form of an infectious agent that allows our immune system to build a memory of it. This way, our immune system can quickly recognize and fight it before it makes us ill. That’s how some current COVID-19 vaccine candidates are being designed.

Other potential vaccines being developed also use new approaches: what are called RNA and DNA vaccines. Instead of introducing antigens (a substance that causes your immune system to produce antibodies), RNA and DNA vaccines give our body the genetic code it needs to allow our immune system to produce the antigen itself.

For more information on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, please visit the WHO and CEPI.

Will the COVID-19 vaccines be safe?

Each country has regulatory bodies that oversee vaccine safety and efficacy before they are used widely. Globally, the WHO coordinates a number of independent technical bodies that review the safety of vaccines prior to and even after they have been introduced.

Vaccines that are approved for use by the WHO have gone through rigorous tests and clinical trials to show that they are safe and effective in controlling diseases. Even though COVID-19 vaccines are being developed as rapidly as possible, they can only receive the required regulatory approvals if they meet stringent safety and efficacy standards.

UNICEF makes the safety of children and their families its highest priority – that includes the delivery of a vaccine that is safe.

When will the COVID-19 vaccine be available in my country?

Once any of the current COVID-19 vaccine candidates have successfully undergone clinical trials, proved to be both safe and effective, and have received regulatory approval, available doses will be allocated to all countries participating in the COVAX Facility using a standardized allocation formula, proportional to their total population size.

The massive global demand will mean that not everyone will be able to get the vaccine at the same time. It will take months — or even years — to create enough vaccine doses for everyone around the world.

The first priority will be getting vaccines to workers in health and social settings such as schools to limit impact of COVID-19 on the functioning of the health and social systems.

The next portion of vaccine doses will allow participating countries to vaccinate high-risk groups, including the elderly and those with medical conditions that put them at greater risk of serious illness and death following COVID-19 infection.

The numbers for each stage will vary by country, and we recommend following the latest updates and guidance from Ghana’s health ministry. 

Who will have access to the vaccines?

The current goal is to make 2 billion doses of the vaccine available for delivery under the COVAX plan by the end of 2021. UNICEF is advocating for teachers, child protection workers and other workers who provide essential services for children to be prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, after frontline health care workers and high-risk populations.

That will be an enormous achievement, but probably for the first few years there won’t be enough doses for more widespread use. That means it will be important to continue taking other precautions to protect you, your family and your community, including practicing physical distancing, regular hand-washing and wearing masks.

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Under the COVAX plan, the initial doses of vaccines sent to countries are intended for health workers, social care workers and people at high risk of severe illness from the virus, such as the elderly or those with underlying conditions, and are unlikely to be given to children.

These populations have been prioritized to help reduce morbidity from COVID-19 and to help protect health systems that serve everyone. The guidance and availability might be updated as we learn more, so it’s a good idea to check back on trusted sources like the WHO, as well as your local health ministry.

It is important, however, to make sure that your child is continuing to receive routine childhood vaccinations. 

How can my family, friends and I stay protected till we receive the vaccine?

Here are some precautions you and your family can take to help avoid infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub
  • Keep at least 1 metre distance between yourself and others
  • Seek medical care early if you or your child has a fever, cough, difficulty breathing or other symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Ensure that you isolate yourself for at least 10 days if you suspect to have contracted the coronavirus disease.
  • Avoid crowded places, confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, and try to practice physical distancing from people in public
  • Wear your mask when in a public places where there is community transmission and where physical distancing is not possible
  • Keep all indoor spaces well ventilated

>>Read more about what parents should know and how they can protect their children from COVID-19