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About the COVID-19 vaccines

24-minute read

The COVID-19 vaccine will be available to all Australians in 2021. Read about its safety, development, approval and more.

If you have severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) immediately and tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival about your recent travel history and any close contact with a person with confirmed COVID-19.

Which COVID-19 vaccines are available in Australia?

Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has provisionally approved vaccines for COVID-19:

  • COMIRNATY, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people aged 16 years and older
  • COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca, the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, for people aged 18 years and older

The Pfizer vaccine, which is an mRNA vaccine requires 2 doses, given at least 21 days apart. You can read the consumer medicines information leaflet (CMI) for this vaccine here.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is a viral-vector vaccine, also requires 2 doses. The second dose should be given 4 to 12 weeks after the first dose. However, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has recommended that the interval between first and second dose is 12 weeks.

If this interval is not possible — for example, because of imminent travel, chemotherapy for cancer or major elective surgery — 4 weeks between doses is allowed. You can read the consumer medicines information leaflet (CMI) for this vaccine here.

The Australian Government has accepted a recommendation from ATAGI that the Pfizer vaccine be given to adults under 50 years of age who have not already received a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. For more information, see, ‘Can I get the AstraZeneca vaccine?’

The TGA is continuing to review other COVID-19 vaccines for approval, including one by the biotechnology company Novavax.

COVID-19 vaccination will be free for everyone living in Australia. This includes:

  • Australian citizens, permanent residents, holders of temporary visas and those not eligible for Medicare
  • refugees, asylum seekers, temporary protection visa holders and those on bridging visas
  • people currently in detention facilities including those whose visas have been cancelled

Healthcare providers won’t charge you any consultation fees associated with administration of the vaccine.

People who are not eligible for Medicare will be encouraged to attend a general practice respiratory clinic or state or territory vaccination clinic to receive their vaccine — when it is their turn.

When will people in Australia receive a COVID-19 vaccine?

Phase 1a and Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout have commenced.

Priority population groups — as part of Phase 1a — include quarantine and frontline healthcare workers, and residents and workers at aged-care and disability facilities.

In Phase 1b includes:

  • elderly adults aged 80 years and over
  • elderly adults aged 70-79
  • other healthcare workers
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults aged 50 and over
  • adults with an underlying medical condition or significant disability
  • critical and high-risk workers including defence, police, fire, emergency services and meat processing

The final 2 groups in this list will need proof of their condition or occupation to demonstrate their eligibility.

People aged 50 to 69 — who are part of Phase 2a of the national vaccine rollout — can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine at GP-led respiratory clinics (GPRCs) and state and territory COVID-19 vaccination sites.

From Monday 17 May 2021, this group will also be able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine from participating GPs.

The Pfizer vaccine will be limited to:

  • people under 50 years
  • residential aged-care facility residents, through the completion of the Commonwealth’s existing in-reach program
  • disability-care residents with complex needs who need in-reach vaccination services
  • people in remote and very remote communities, where it makes sense to use a single vaccine for all or most of the community
  • in very limited circumstances, quarantine, border and frontline healthcare workers who are 50 years and older and not already vaccinated, if the relevant state or territory determines the worker should be fully vaccinated as soon as possible

Australia’s National Cabinet has agreed to increase access to the Pfizer vaccine by opening more state and territory-operated Pfizer vaccine sites for eligible people, including mass vaccination sites.

To find out if you’re eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, use the Eligibility Checker here. Read more about the vaccine rollout here.

Are COVID-19 vaccines safe?

All vaccines are thoroughly tested for safety before they’re approved by the Government’s therapeutic regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), for use in Australia.

As part of the Australian Government’s Department of Health, the TGA is responsible for regulating all therapeutic goods, including prescription medicines, vaccines, sunscreens, vitamins and minerals, medical devices, blood and blood products. Testing involves carefully analysing clinical trial data, ingredients, manufacturing processes and other factors.

Even after you receive a vaccine, it’s still monitored for safety.

If you have any questions about vaccination, talk to your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional. They can also give feedback to the TGA about any side effects — even if they’re minor. This will help the TGA oversee the safety of vaccines. In the unlikely event that a safety risk develops, the TGA will inform healthcare providers, the community and the Australian Government as soon as possible.

How are vaccines approved in Australia?

Before a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available in Australia, it must pass the rigorous approval processes of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This includes the assessment of every ingredient in the vaccine for safety, quality and effectiveness.

A clinical trial is a scientific study conducted by the makers of a vaccine. Clinical trials of medicines are done in phases.

The TGA carefully assesses the results of clinical trials and the way in which the trials were designed and conducted. The TGA also checks that the trials involved enough human participants that represented the people for whom the vaccine is intended.

The TGA ensures that vaccine manufacturers meet manufacturing quality standards. TGA laboratories assess the quality of every batch of a vaccine before it can be supplied in Australia.

Sometimes a ‘provisional approval pathway’ is needed for the temporary registration of promising new medicines and vaccines — where the need for early access outweighs any risks.

The TGA has provisionally approved the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. It’s expected that other makers of COVID-19 vaccines will apply to the TGA for registration using this provisional approval pathway.

Video provided by Australian Government Department of Health

What is a vaccine?

Vaccination prepares the immune system to fight against a future infection. Vaccines often contain tiny amounts of dead or weakened viruses or bacteria, called antigens. The immune system responds to these antigens without you getting sick, effectively training the immune system to fight the disease if exposed to it in the future.

Some vaccines need to be given more than once — known as ‘booster’ vaccinations. Some vaccines, such as the seasonal influenza (flu) vaccine, only work for a short period of time. This is because the virus itself can change over time.

Vaccines are usually given with an injection.

Video provided by Australian Government Department of Health

What ingredients are in a vaccine?

The ingredients of a vaccine vary, depending on what the vaccine is for. A vaccine may contain some of these ingredients:

  • a protein component of a virus
  • a piece of genetic code (DNA or mRNA)
  • a very small dose of a weakened virus
  • a substance to boost the immune response (known as an adjuvant)
  • sterile salt water (saline) for injections
  • a small amount of preservative or stabilisers, which ensure vaccines stay effective during storage and transportation

Once a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), its ingredients will be listed in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.

How do different COVID-19 vaccines work?

Vaccines train your immune system to quickly recognise and get rid of the bacteria or viruses that can cause serious illnesses. There are many types of vaccine being developed to protect us against COVID-19. They’re all designed to generate an immune response specific to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Most COVID-19 vaccines use the coronavirus ‘spike’ protein to cause this immune response. The immune system recognises this spike protein as ‘foreign’ and starts producing long-lasting immune cells and antibodies.

If a vaccinated person becomes exposed to COVID-19 later on, the immune system will be able to launch a faster and better response to protect against the disease.

Important: these vaccines do not contain the live or whole virus that causes COVID-19.

Here’s how the common types of COVID-19 vaccine work.

Messenger RNA (mRNA)

The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are examples of an mRNA vaccine. This vaccine uses a genetic code, called messenger-RNA (mRNA), to trigger the production of the COVID-19-specific spike protein.

The mRNA from the vaccine enters the cytoplasm of the body’s cells. The cells then use the instructions contained in the mRNA to make the spike protein. Immune cells can then recognise the spike protein as foreign and begin building an immune response against it.

Important: messenger-RNA can’t change or interact with a person’s DNA in any way.

Clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine, COMIRNATY, show that this vaccine triggers antibodies that can respond to a range of coronavirus mutations. The Australian Government, which has approved this vaccine for people aged 16 and older, will continue to monitor this as more data becomes available.

Protein

The Novavax vaccine is an example of a protein-based vaccine. This uses a non-infectious component of COVID-19, usually the spike protein.

This protein is found on the surface of the virus and can be manufactured in a laboratory. When the vaccine enters the body, immune cells recognise the spike protein as foreign and begin building an immune response against it.

Vector

The AstraZeneca vaccine is an example of a viral vector vaccine. These types of vaccines use a harmless, weakened animal virus that contains the genetic code for a protein unique to COVID-19, usually the spike protein.

This weakened animal virus is known as a ‘viral vector’. Once the viral vector enters the body, immune cells then recognise the spike protein as foreign and begin building an immune response against it.

Do COVID-19 vaccines stop transmission of the virus?

Clinical trials have shown that the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines protect against COVID-19 symptoms and severe disease after a person receives two doses.

It’s not yet known whether these vaccines prevent transmission of the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19, since there’s not yet enough information to understand whether people who have been vaccinated can pass the virus onto others.

Australia’s Therapeutic Good Administration has provisionally approved the Pfizer vaccine for those aged 16 and older and the AstraZeneca vaccine for those aged 18 and older.

However, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has recommended that the Pfizer vaccine be given to adults under 50 years. For more information, see Can I get the AstraZeneca vaccine?

Can I choose which vaccine I receive?

No, you will not generally be able to choose which vaccine you receive.

Specific vaccines will be given based on availability, clinical guidelines and subject to advice from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).

The vaccine you receive may depend on:

  • when and where you will be vaccinated
  • any clinical guidelines that determine the most appropriate vaccine for you

So far, the TGA has approved 2 vaccines for use in Australia:

  • the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine
  • the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine

Currently, ATAGI recommends that the Pfizer vaccine be given to people under 50 years.

The 2 vaccines are not considered interchangeable. Your 2-dose course should be completed with the same vaccine.

Do I need an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccination?

If you are in Phase 1a of the vaccine rollout, your vaccination will likely be organised by your employer or your aged-care or disability-care facility, if you’re a resident or worker in one of these facilities. You can also make your own booking now via the Eligibility Checker (see below).

If you’re eligible for Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout, you can make an appointment using the Eligibility Checker. This free online tool will first ask you some questions to confirm your eligibility. You can then find clinics near you that offer a COVID-19 vaccine and to book your appointment.

If there are no appointments available, try again as more appointments become available. If you are 50 and older, you can contact a participating general practice or a Commonwealth GP-led respiratory clinic, to book an appointment. If you are 16 to 49, the Pfizer vaccine is recommended for you. State and territory governments are running Pfizer clinics. You may be able to book an appointment for the Pfizer vaccine now — depending on what state or territory you’re in. Use the Eligibility Checker to learn more. Please do not call Pfizer clinics.

Some states and territories are offering the vaccine at mass vaccination sites. For more information, go to your local state or territory’s Department of Health website.

If you are not yet eligible, you can register your interest via the Eligibility Checker and you’ll be notified when you’re able to book.

For more information, read ‘How will I get my COVID-19 vaccine?’ on the Department of Health website.

Which staff at residential aged-care facilities can get vaccinated as part of Phase 1a?

Aged-care staff eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccination in Phase 1a of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout strategy include all people working at residential aged-care facilities who are responsible for resident care, support and services for residents, maintenance and administration.

This includes:

  • nursing and personal care staff
  • allied health professionals
  • kitchen, cleaning, laundry, garden and office staff

These staff must be employed, hired, retained or contracted to provide services under the control of the organisation. This includes those employed through recruitment agencies and students on placement at a facility.

General practitioners (GPs) and other health professionals who routinely provide care within a residential aged-care facility are also eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a part of Phase 1a.

Aged-care staff not eligible in Phase 1a:

  • those who provide care and services for the organisation on a volunteer basis
  • care persons such as those who frequently and regularly provide care and companionship to an individual resident
  • those who work on an infrequent or as-needs basis such as plumbers, electricians, delivery people or health professionals
  • those who only provide aged-care services in a community or home setting, including aged-care services funded under the home care packages (HCP) program or the Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP)

Individuals who weren’t eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Phase 1a can be vaccinated in a later phase of the vaccine rollout.

Will I need to have a COVID-19 vaccination to visit a residential aged-care facility?

No — you won’t need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to visit an aged-care facility. However, all visitors must continue to follow restrictions even if residents and staff of the facility have been vaccinated.

For up-to-date information on aged-care restrictions, you need to refer your state or territory’s Department of Health website. You’ll find a link to your state or territory website here.

How have the COVID-19 vaccines been developed so quickly?

The urgency of the COVID-19 crisis has meant that all available resources and efforts are being directed towards finding an effective vaccine.

Globally, some COVID-19 vaccines were approved and administered just 12 months after the virus was discovered. Usually, development of a vaccine takes several years. Some of the reasons behind this rapid progress include:

  • The levels of funding and collaboration between vaccine developers and governments are greater than ever before. Planning began early, including investment in manufacturing facilities before a vaccine was even available.
  • Technology makes vaccine development faster than in the past. To develop a vaccine, scientists need to understand the virus’s genetic code. New technology allowed researchers to quickly identify the genetic code of the COVID-19 virus soon after it emerged. This allowed scientists around the world to start designing and building vaccines.
  • Clinical trials progress more quickly if a disease is widespread, which is the case for COVID-19 in many countries. This means researchers can evaluate the effect of a vaccine on both unvaccinated and vaccinated groups much sooner than they’d be able with a rare disease.

What is Australia’s COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy?

Australia’s COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy outlines how the Government is investing in promising vaccines and treatments. It explains how they will be safely, fairly and rapidly delivered to people in Australians. It is, for example:

  • supporting research for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments
  • enlisting local vaccine manufacturers and strengthening their capacity
  • taking part in global initiatives to secure access to vaccines
  • facilitating Australia’s health product regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), to safely and speedily approve vaccines for use in Australia — for example, by helping the TGA exchange information with international counterparts
  • rolling out a COVID-19 vaccination policy and immunisation program, which will be regularly updated based on advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI)

The Strategy will also ensure the vaccine program is monitored — to ensure the vaccines are still safe.

Video provided by Australian Government Department of Health

Several steps happen before a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out:

Vaccine batches must be:

  • dispatched from the manufacturer
  • tested by the TGA to ensure they meet Australia’s strict quality standards
  • allocated and distributed to vaccination sites
  • received by healthcare professionals to administer

State and territory governments prepare to administer the vaccines by:

  • preparing safe and secure cold chain storage for the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored between -90°C and -60°C (however, unopened vials may be stored and transported at -25°C to -15°C for up to 2 weeks and can be returned to -90°C to -60°C)
  • training the workforce who will administer the vaccines
  • organising and checking equipment
  • activating systems for ongoing monitoring

For more information on the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy, go to health.gov.au and click on ‘COVID-19 vaccines’.


More questions about COVID-19 vaccines

Click on the links below for more questions and answers about COVID-19 vaccines.


Resources in other languages

COVID-19 vaccination resources in other languages are available from the Department of Health.

Looking for more information?

Visit healthdirect's COVID-19 information hub for more answers to questions about the coronavirus, or use these COVID-19 tools and resources:

RESTRICTIONS — Use the COVID-19 Restriction Checker to find out what you can and can't do in your state or territory.

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Last reviewed: May 2021


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