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Coronavirus vaccines: Will they be safe?

04 August 2020 in Health

Written by Meera Senthilingam
Edited by Mike Martin
Reviewed by the Your.MD Medical team

There's still a lot we don't understand about coronavirus, but one thing is clear: we need a vaccine to slow or end the pandemic.

More than 160 different vaccines are currently in development — and more than 25 are already being tested on humans to check if they're safe and work well. Of these, 6 have reached the final stage of testing, meaning they're being trialled on thousands of people to see how well they work.

It normally takes 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine; however, researchers are trying to make a coronavirus vaccine available by the end of the year.

But is this safe?

“Safety is something we need to focus on when it comes to COVID-19,” says professor Heidi Larson, Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK. “The hype around being fast and warp speed is not helpful for a public that's anxious about safety.”

But people are right to worry, because there’s not enough information out there to put their minds at ease, Larson points out. “It’s a time when people need reassurance more than ever,” she says.

Why are people worried?

While most health experts support the vaccine, research from across the world suggests that members of the public aren't so sure.

A French study found that 26% of people surveyed would not get a vaccine if it became available. Another survey in New York, USA revealed that a similar number (27%) would not get a vaccine.

“What we’re hearing is it’s too fast, it can’t be safe,” says Larson. Also, “one of the big things driving hesitancy is that people feel left out,” she says. This means experts need to explain what’s going on better -- such as what it takes to develop and approve a vaccine.

This is supported by the New York survey, which showed that more than 3 in 4 of those who said they wouldn’t get the vaccine admitted they may change their minds if they saw strong evidence on how safe it is and how well it works.

“If we become more responsive and engage people, it can get us a lot of credibility moving forward,” says Larson.

Flu vaccine

What do people need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine?

It’s not too fast

Larson believes the most important message to share is that vaccine makers haven't taken any shortcuts that could put people at risk.

The reason things are moving so fast is that the vaccine was quickly identified, new technologies are being used and funding was also made available, she explains.

Larson adds that lessons were learned during the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which led to more than 28,000 infections and over 11,000 deaths.

A vaccine was eventually created and used to help end the Ebola outbreak, but only after thousands had already died from the virus.

It’s a credible process

It’s key for people to understand what it takes to develop a vaccine, says Larson.

New vaccines -- also new medicines -- go through many stages before being approved. This includes:

  1. Investigation and research in the lab.
  2. Testing and development in the lab.
  3. A total of 3 stages of trials in humans (Phase 1, 2 and 3) -- where the number of people involved in the trial gets bigger and more varied. The final phase often involves thousands of people across multiple locations, and tests for both safety and how protective the vaccine is.
  4. Approval and licensing -- from authorities and regulators, such as the Federal Drug Authority (FDA) in the USA or European Medicines Agency (EMA).
  5. Phase 4 trials -- monitoring the effect of the vaccine in the population once people start getting it.

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Find the right information

It’s also important to watch out for vaccine conspiracy theories that are shared across social media, says Larson.

For example, Facebook recently removed posts that suggested that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates will use vaccinations to put microchips in people to track them. But research by Larson’s group shows theories like these are still regularly posted on social media.

Larson believes that good-quality information that addresses concerns around vaccines is lacking, and this gives anti-vaccine voices room to be heard. “When there’s not a lot of information around, people either make it up or they fill the space,” she says.

There’s still a lot we don’t know

For now, it’s also important to note that because we don’t have a vaccine yet, there's a lot we still don't know.

Some trials are showing promising results, such as the vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and another in the US by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious disease (NIAID).

These have so far been found to be safe, with minimal side effects.

But it’s still very early.

“We don’t have a vaccine yet, so in terms of safety we don’t know. We don’t have the information yet,” says Larson. “But we can assure people that the processes are not shortchanging safety at all.”

Key points:

  • more than 160 different vaccines for coronavirus are in development
  • so far, 5 have proven to be safe and are now being tested to see how well they work
  • studies show many people don't want to be vaccinated because they're worried it isn't safe
  • vaccines aren't being developed too quickly — funding, new technologies and lots of people focusing on them has sped up the process
  • new vaccines go through many stages before being approved and shortcuts haven't been taken for the COVID-19 vaccine
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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