What you need to know about COVID-19 vaccines
Answers to some of the most common questions about coronavirus vaccines
Vaccines for COVID-19 are critical tools for helping bring the pandemic under control when combined with effective testing and existing prevention measures. Vaccines save millions of lives each year.
We’ve gathered the latest expert information to answer some of the most common questions about COVID-19 vaccines. Keep checking back as we will update this article as more information becomes available.
Vaccines teach our immune system to build specific antibodies against disease-causing viruses and bacteria or their toxins. Your body becomes armed to fight these without ever having to become sick first. So, when the body encounters the viruses or bacteria against which vaccines are made it already knows how to defeat them.
Yes, the COVID-19 vaccines must go through rigorous testing in clinical trials to prove that they meet internationally agreed benchmarks for safety and effectiveness. Only if they meet these standards can a vaccine receive validation from WHO.
Scientists were able to develop safe effective vaccines in a relatively short amount of time due to a combination of factors that allowed them to scale up research and production without compromising safety:
- Because of the global pandemic, there was a larger sample size to study and tens of thousands of volunteers stepped forward
- Advancements in technology (like mRNA vaccines) that were years in the making
- Governments and other bodies came together to remove the obstacle of funding research and development
Several types of COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, or are in development, including:
- Inactivated or weakened virus vaccines, which use a form of the virus that has been inactivated or weakened so it does not cause disease, but still generates an immune response.
- Protein-based vaccines, which use harmless fragments of proteins or protein shells that mimic the COVID-19 virus to safely generate an immune response.
- Viral vector vaccines, which use a harmless virus that carries the coronavirus proteins to safely generate an immune response.
- Nucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines use genetically engineered RNA to generate a protein that itself safely prompts an immune response.
No. None of the current vaccines contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. This means that a vaccine cannot make us sick with COVID-19. Mild symptoms reported by vaccinated persons (pain, skin redness at the injection site, headache and fever) are only proof that your immune system is activated.
Vaccines are designed to give you immunity without the dangers of getting the disease. Not everyone does, but it’s common to experience some mild-to-moderate side effects that go away within a few days on their own.
Some of the mild-to-moderate side effects you may experience after vaccination include:
- Arm soreness at the injection site
- Mild fever
- Muscle or joint aches
You can manage any side effects with rest, staying hydrated and taking medication to manage pain and fever, if needed.
If any symptoms continue for more than a few days then contact your family doctor for advice. More serious side effects are extremely rare, but if you experience a more severe reaction, then contact your healthcare provider immediately.
If you have any questions about whether you should receive a COVID-19 vaccine, speak to your family doctor. At present, people with the following health conditions should not receive a COVID-19 vaccine to avoid any possible adverse effects:
- If you have a history of severe allergic reactions to any ingredients of a COVID-19 vaccine.
- If you are currently sick or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 (although you can get vaccinated after recovery and as per recommendations of national authorities).
COVID-19 vaccines may be administered to people with underlying medical conditions provided they have not had a severe or immediate allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in the vaccine. It is strongly recommended as a priority for persons with comorbidities such as chronic respiratory disease, chronic cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, all of which have been identified as increasing the risk of severe COVID-19 disease and hospitalization.
Most vaccines require more than just one dose. If a second dose (or more) is recommended, it is to boost the immune system for optimal and lengthier protection. It is always best to get all recommended doses at the recommended times. If administration of the second dose is inadvertently delayed it should be given as soon as possible thereafter, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Boosters are important including in the context of Omicron, especially for people with a high risk of severe disease, like older people or people with underlying risk factors, as well as health workers.
It is important to be vaccinated as soon as it’s your turn, even if you already had COVID-19. Vaccines offer more reliable protection than natural immunity. Getting vaccinated is a safer way for you to develop immunity from COVID-19 than getting infected.
WHO reports that unvaccinated people have at least 10 times higher risk of death from COVID-19 than someone who has been vaccinated. There is also evidence that being vaccinated can help prevent you from spreading the virus, so it protects people around you. The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, but no vaccine provides absolute protection. Some people will still get ill from COVID-19 after vaccination or pass the virus onto someone else. Therefore, it is important to continue practicing safety precautions to protect yourself and others, including avoiding crowded spaces, physical distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask.
The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against serious illness and death, but no vaccine is 100% effective. A number of vaccinated people may get infected with COVID-19, which is called a breakthrough infection. In such cases, people are much more likely to only have milder symptoms. Their protection against serious illness and death remains strong.
Research is still ongoing to determine how long COVID-19 vaccines provide protection. According to WHO, most people have strong protection against serious illness and death for at least six months. This immunity may reduce faster for some people, including older age groups and those with underlying medical conditions. That is why boosters are recommended.
Researchers are looking into any potential impact the Omicron variant has on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Information is still limited, but there may be a small reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe illness and death, and a decline in preventing mild disease and infection. However, WHO reports that so far it looks like the currently available vaccines offer significant protection against severe disease and death.
It is also important to be vaccinated to protect against the other widely circulating variants. Boosters are important including in the context of Omicron, especially for people with a high risk of severe disease, like older people or people with underlying risk factors, as well as health workers.
No. Even those vaccines called mRNA vaccines do not change or interact with your DNA in any way. The mRNA vaccines instruct our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response and then dissolves immediately. This builds immunity against the virus that causes COVID-19. The mRNA (i.e., the instructions) from a vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is kept.
An increasing number of vaccines are now being approved for use in children, so it’s important to stay informed of guidance by your local and national health authorities. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been approved by WHO for use in children 12 years and older.
At this time, WHO recommends that countries should vaccinate children only when high vaccine coverage with two doses has been achieved in higher priority-use groups. Children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults, so unless they are part of a group at higher risk of severe COVID-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers.
Remind your children of the importance of us all taking precautions to protect each other, such as avoiding crowded spaces, physical distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask. It is critical that children continue to receive routine immunization. Read about how to do so safely.
Yes, if you are breastfeeding you should take the vaccine. It is very safe and there is no risk to the mother or baby. None of the current COVID-19 vaccines have live virus in them, so there is no risk of you transmitting COVID-19 to your baby through your breastmilk from the vaccine. In fact, the antibodies that you have after vaccination may go through the breast milk and help protect your baby.
Yes, you can get vaccinated if you are pregnant. Pregnancy puts you at higher risk of severe illness compared to people who are not pregnant. Although there is less data available, evidence on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy has been growing, and no safety concerns have been identified. For more information about receiving a COVID-19 vaccination while pregnant, speak to your healthcare provider.
Some women have reported experiencing a disruption to their menstrual cycle after getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Although data is still limited, research is ongoing into the impact of vaccines on menstrual cycles. Speak to your healthcare provider if you have concerns or questions about your periods.
Safe and effective vaccines are a game changer, but even once vaccinated we need to continue taking precautions for the time being to protect ourselves and others. The most important thing you can do is reduce your risk of exposure to the virus. To protect yourself and your loved ones, make sure to:
- Wear a mask
- Keep a physical distance from others in public places
- Avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces
- Open windows to improve ventilation indoors
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water
- If you or a family member has a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, seek medical care early
Misinformation is one of the biggest challenges in fighting COVID-19. Knowing the facts is key to being properly prepared and protecting yourself and your loved ones. This is why it’s important to refer only to reliable sources when you look for information and advice.
You can also check out HealthBuddy+ mobile application developed by UNICEF and WHO regional offices and available in Macedonian and Albanian languages thanks to financial support from USAID. It gives access to up-to-date and evidence-based information on COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. Download the app on Apple and Google Play to interact with the chatbot, report rumors, and participate in survey polls - all at your fingertips.
The development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is a huge step forward in our global effort to end the pandemic. But there are still some people who are skeptical or hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines. Chances are you know a person who falls into this category.
We spoke to Dr. Saad Omer, Director at the Yale Institute for Global Health, to get his tips on how to navigate these challenging conversations.