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COVID-19 vaccines

13-minute read

IMPORTANT: 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.


Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

The Australian Government is tracking the progress of COVID-19 vaccines.

The government has 4 agreements to supply COVID-19 vaccines — if they’re proven safe and effective.

Australia’s vaccine policy

The Australian Government has developed a vaccine policy to provide successful COVID-19 vaccines for free to all Australians, permanent residents and visa-holders — except visa sub-classes 771, 600, 651 and 601.

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be available?

Vaccines must pass a rigorous approval process before they can become available.

A COVID-19 vaccine is expected to become available to priority groups from early 2021.

The Australian Government aims to have as many people as possible vaccinated in 2021. However, identified priority groups will get the first available doses — if the vaccine is proven to be safe and effective.

The Australian Government and state and territory governments are working together to plan how to safely and efficiently make a vaccine available once it is approved.

Why should I get vaccinated against COVID-19?

COVID-19 can cause serious, long-term health conditions, and sometimes death. Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself, your family and the people around you.

When enough people in the community get immunised, it becomes more difficult for the virus to spread. This helps to protect people who are at greater risk of getting the disease, including unvaccinated members of the community. Even those who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated may avoid encountering the disease.

Eventually, if enough people in the community get immunised, the infection will no longer be able to spread. This would mean outbreaks are much less likely — and the need for preventative measures, like travel restrictions, would decrease.

Who will receive the COVID-19 vaccination first?

The Australian COVID-19 vaccination program will prioritise the following groups:

  • aged-care and disability-care residents and workers
  • frontline healthcare workers
  • quarantine and border workers

Then the vaccine will be rolled out to other populations at greater risk of the disease, including:

  • older people
  • people with certain medical conditions
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • other critical and high-risk workers

What is ATAGI?

The Australian Government receives advice on vaccines from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or ATAGI.

ATAGI has initially recommended that the following groups be prioritised to receive a possible COVID-19 vaccination:

  • people at an increased risk of exposure, infection and transmission of COVID-19, or those in a setting with possible high transmission
  • people with an increased risk of developing severe disease or dying from COVID-19
  • people working in critical services

Reasoning behind identified priority groups

These groups have been recommended since large volumes of a vaccine won’t likely be available immediately. This is due to worldwide demand for a safe and effective vaccine to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Groups are prioritised based on current public health and medical evidence for who would be most affected if they contracted COVID-19.

These groups may change as more information becomes available.

The advice the Australian Government has received is consistent with guidance from the World Health Organization. It forms part of the government’s preparations to roll out a safe, effective vaccine once it has been approved for use.

Which COVID-19 vaccines will Australia receive?

The Australian Government is following the development of several vaccines against COVID-19. The government has signed 4 agreements for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to people in Australia — if they’re shown to be safe and effective. The agreements are with:

  • the University of Oxford and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca — They’re conducting phase 3 clinical trials of a possible viral vector vaccine. You’ll likely need 2 doses if it’s approved.
  • biotechnology company Novavax — The company’s conducting phase 3 clinical trials of a possible protein vaccine. You’ll likely need 2 doses if it’s approved.
  • pharmaceutical company Pfizer and biotechnology company BioNTech — They’re conducting phase 3 clinical trials for a possible mRNA-based vaccine. You’ll likely need 2 doses if it’s approved.
  • the COVAX facility — This is a global initiative that will provide access to COVID-19 vaccines when they become available.

The Australian Government supported the University of Queensland’s research into a possible COVID-19 vaccine, but the uni will not proceed.

What does a vaccine contain?

The ingredients of a vaccine vary, depending on what the vaccine is for. However, a vaccine may contain some of the following 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)
  • a small amount of preservative
  • sterile salt water (saline) for injections

How do COVID-19 vaccines work?

There are many types of vaccines being developed to protect people against COVID-19. All of them are designed to generate an immune response aimed specifically at the COVID-19 coronavirus, but without making people sick.

Vaccines train your immune system to quickly recognise and get rid of the bacteria or viruses that can cause serious illnesses. A COVID-19 vaccine will strengthen your immune system by training it to recognise the COVID-19 coronavirus and fight against it.

Most COVID-19 vaccines use what is known as a ‘spike’ protein to generate this immune response. Our immune system recognises the spike protein as foreign and produces long-lasting immune cells and antibodies.

If a vaccinated person is exposed to the coronavirus, their immune system will be able to respond faster and more effectively to protect them against COVID-19.

Are COVID-19 vaccines safe?

All vaccines are thoroughly tested for safety before they’re approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA, for use in Australia. The TGA is part of the Australian Government’s Department of Health, and is responsible for regulating therapeutic goods, including prescription medicines, vaccines, sunscreens, vitamins and minerals, medical devices, blood and blood products.

Testing includes carefully analysing clinical trial data, ingredients, chemistry, manufacturing 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. Your healthcare professional can then give feedback to the TGA about any side effects — even if they’re minor.

This will help the regulator in overseeing 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.

Do COVID-19 vaccines have any side effects?

You may experience minor side effects following vaccination against COVID-19. Most side effects last no more than a couple of days and you'll recover without any problems.

Common reactions to vaccination include:

  • pain, redness or swelling where you received the needle
  • mild fever

Serious reactions, such as allergic reactions, are extremely rare. If you have any concerns about the vaccine, ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist.

How are the COVID-19 vaccines under development being tested?

Any vaccine must be tested extensively and pass through different stages of research before Australia’s health product regulator — the Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA — can approve it for use.

Testing begins with lab research then proceeds to animal trials. Finally, people volunteer to take part in what are known as clinical trials.

Clinical trials are divided into 3 phases.

Phase 1

Phase 1 clinical trials usually test a vaccine on a few dozen healthy adult volunteers. This phase is designed to show whether a vaccine:

  • is safe
  • activates people’s immune systems

Phase 2

Phase 2 clinical trials test the vaccine on hundreds of volunteers. Because some vaccines target specific groups — such as older people, children or people with medical conditions — trials can be split up across each group.

Phase 2 trials test whether your immune system responds to a vaccine and are designed to confirm that the vaccine is safe and only causes minor side effects — such as a mild headache.

Phase 3

Phase 3 clinical trials involve thousands of volunteers. These trials test whether a vaccine effectively prevents people from getting a disease such as COVID-19.

Phase 3 trials also assess a vaccine’s safety and side effects. Researchers usually compare the data of those who received the vaccine under development with the data of those who received an inactive version, called a placebo. Researchers compare:

  • the infection frequency
  • the severity of any disease
  • any reported side effects

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.

Some COVID-19 vaccines may be approved and used within 18 months of the virus being 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 any ever seen before. Planning began early, including investment in manufacturing facilities before a vaccine was even available.
  • Technology has evolved to make 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 the virus emerged. This allowed scientists around the world to start work on 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.

How are vaccines approved in Australia?

The Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA, must assess and approve any COVID-19 vaccine before people can receive it. This includes examining scientific information and analyses, and determining the safety, quality and capability of vaccines.

The TGA is monitoring vaccine development around the world. The regulator reviews possible vaccines and discusses the application process with the developers.

How will COVID-19 vaccines be distributed?

Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program will begin with priority populations, including aged-care and disability-care residents and workers; frontline healthcare workers; and quarantine and border workers.

Thirty to 50 vaccination ‘hubs’ will be set up at hospitals across urban and rural Australia. Some priority groups, including frontline quarantine and healthcare workers, will go to these hospital sites to get vaccinated. Healthcare teams will also collect the vaccine from these hubs and take them to aged-care and disability-care facilities so they can vaccinate residents there.

To receive the vaccine, you’ll need to provide proof of eligibility, confirm you agree to be vaccinated, and have a clinical screening when you check in at the hospital hub.

The hospital sites will be used to store the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which needs to be kept at below 70 degrees Celsius. If approved, this will likely be the first vaccine to become available in Australia.

As the program progresses, vaccinations will become available at GP respiratory clinics, Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Services, general practices and state vaccination clinics, depending on the advice of each state and territory. There’ll eventually be more than 1,000 vaccine distribution points nationwide.

Once priority and higher-risk populations — such as older Australians — have been vaccinated, there will probably be a number of sites at which you can receive the vaccine.

Will I have to be vaccinated against COVID-19?

No — in Australia, you won’t have to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

While the Australian Government supports immunisation, it’s not compulsory. Individuals can choose not to be vaccinated.

Australians have a great record in being immunised. If a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 becomes available, the government hopes that as many Australians as possible will choose to be vaccinated.

However, if people choose not to have a COVID-19 vaccine, this won’t affect their family's eligibility for Family Tax Benefit Part A or childcare fee assistance. These benefits only include the National Immunisation Program vaccines for those aged under 20 years.


More frequently asked questions (FAQs) about COVID-19

Click on the links below for more questions and answers about the coronavirus (COVID-19).


Information and alerts

Visit the Department of Health's website for the latest alerts on COVID-19 in Australia, or the World Health Organization's website for global updates.


Resources in other languages

COVID-19 resources in other languages are available from the Department of Health, as well as from the ACT, NSW, Qld, SA, Tas, Vic and WA health departments.

Information is also available in Aboriginal languages (NT).


Information for health professionals

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) provides coronavirus (COVID-19) information for GPs.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021


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