The COVID-19 vaccine will be available to all Australians in 2021. Read about its safety, development, approval and more.
Which COVID-19 vaccines will Australia receive?
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 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 TGA is also continuing to review other COVID-19 vaccines for approval:
- Biotechnology company Novavax is conducting phase-3 clinical trials of a protein vaccine. If approved, people will likely need 2 doses.
- The COVAX facility is a global initiative that will provide access to COVID-19 vaccines when they become available.
The Government supported the University of Queensland’s research into a possible COVID-19 vaccine but this will not proceed to phase-3 trials.
Once COVID-19 vaccination becomes available in Australia, it will be free to 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
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 a COVID-19 vaccine be available in Australia?
Priority population groups have begun receiving the Pfizer vaccine. These groups include quarantine and frontline healthcare workers, and residents and workers at aged-care and disability facilities. The second dose of this vaccine will be given at least 21 days after the first dose.
In the first week of vaccination, approximately 50,000 Pfizer vaccines are for hotel quarantine and border workers and frontline healthcare workers. Also, approximately 30,000 Pfizer vaccines are for aged-care and disability care residents.
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.
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.
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?
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has provisionally approved the Pfizer vaccine, COMIRNATY, and the AstraZeneca vaccine, COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca (active ingredient ChAdOx1-S).
These vaccines have been shown to prevent illness from the disease named COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2.
It’s not yet known whether COMIRNATY or COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca prevent transmission of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) or asymptomatic disease.
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 and subject to advice from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
This means 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 only 2 vaccines for use in Australia:
- the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine
- the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine
These 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?
Yes — when it’s your turn to get vaccinated against COVID-19, you will need an appointment.
How you receive your appointment information will depend on which phase you are in. If you are in phase 1a, your vaccination will probably 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.
For more information, visit How COVID-19 vaccines will be distributed on the Department of Health’s website.
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 once it begins — to ensure the vaccines are still safe.
Video provided by Australian Government Department of Health
Pfizer vaccine rollout
The first batches of the Pfizer vaccine, COMIRNATY, have arrived in Australia and are being rolled out.
Vaccine batches must be:
- 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 have been preparing to administer vaccines by:
- preparing safe and secure cold-chain storage — since COMIRNATY must be kept at -60° to -90°Celsius
- training the workforce that will administer the vaccines
- organising and checking equipment
- creating systems for the ongoing monitoring of the vaccine
Initially, the Pfizer vaccine will be available at up to 50 hospital sites nationwide, and in residential aged-care and disability facilities. Eventually there will be more than 1,000 vaccine distribution points. For more information on the Australian Government’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy, go to health.gov.au.
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.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the COVID-19 Symptom Checker to find out if you need to seek medical help.
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Last reviewed: February 2021