Covid vaccine: Professor Jonathan Van-Tam addresses jab safety concerns of ITV News panel in Q&A

Watch in full: Covid vaccine Q&A with Professor Jonathan Van-Tam

England's deputy chief medical officer has directly addressed the concerns of an ITV News panel of people likely to get the Covid-19 vaccine but have worries about its safety and the speed at which it has been developed.

During an in-depth question and answer session, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam was asked by a panel of four people whether safety had been compromised in a bid to find a vaccine quickly, concerns surrounding side effects, whether a jab would be suitable for the clinically vulnerable and also all ages and ethnicities, and how long it could be before life returns to normal.

The Q&A was conducted before the UK's regulator approved the Pfizer/BioNTech jab for use from next week and came following an exclusive poll conducted for ITV News which found that concerns over potential side effects from Covid-19 vaccines were the main reasons why people would not want to be inoculated against the respiratory disease.

A poll of 2,090 UK adults carried out by Savanta ComRes between November 20 and 22 found that while two-in-three (67%) would be "likely" to get a vaccine once one is approved and available, more than one-in-five (23%) said they would be "unlikely" to do so and a further 10% said they "don't know".

Of those who said they would be "reluctant" to be vaccinated, 44% said it was because they were "scared of potential side-effects", while almost one-in-three (31%) said it was because they did not trust pharmaceutical companies.

Here are some of the questions Professor Van-Tam were asked by the panel - you can watch the Q&A in full at the top of this page.

Should we be worried about any potential side effects from a Covid vaccine?

Not getting vaccinated against Covid-19 due to fears over potential side effects is a far greater risk than any adverse reaction caused by the immunisation, Prof Van-Tam told the panel.

Prof Van-Tam was speaking more generally about not only the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine but also the Moderna jab which has so far shown 95% effectiveness and the immunisation being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca which has shown up to 90% effectiveness.

Yet he said the data he had "seen so far suggests that the side effects are pretty mild compared to the side effects of Covid-19 in a vulnerable person."

"All you got to do is look at some TV footage of vulnerable people, stuck on ICU, stuck inside oxygen, bubbles, and being critically ill for many periods of time, having to say goodbye to their loved ones before they go into hospital.

"That's, you know, that's the real side effect of Covid-19."

Speaking on Wednesday, Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, of the Commission on Human Medicine Expert Working Group (CHM) said the safety of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was similar to other vaccines and that any side effects were usually mild and lasted only a few days.

Should we be worried that Covid vaccines are being created faster than other vaccines?

Some 23% of those polled also said they were "uncomfortable" with how quickly potential vaccines are being developed.

Prof Van-Tam said that although the process had been speeded up, "the corners have not been cut on the actual size of the studies and the way in which the regulators will sit down and look at the data at the end".

He continued that the different studies had been sending their findings to the MHRA "week on week, month on month" so that they could be assessed in real time, rather than sending a "lorry load of paperwork" or "vaccine dossier" once the trial was finished.

Professor Van-Tam explained this meant "there isn't this backlog of paperwork and studies to examine at the very end. And that's another way in which we've saved time without cutting corners."

He added that one of the very issue which has made Covid-19 a huge issue worldwide - the high numbers of people contracting the respiratory disease - large numbers of people can take part in trials at once.

"Because coronavirus has just ravaged its way around the world, and the manufacturers have placed trials all over the world, Brazil, South Africa, UK, because of that, they've got the case numbers.

"They need to do the readout on effectiveness very, very quickly indeed.

"So it's partly sad that we've got to the results so fast because it means we've had so much disease around in the world, but it is good from the point of view of vaccine development that these trials have moved very fast, just because of case numbers."

Are children going to be vaccinated?

Currently the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has not been approved for use on the under-18s and it is highly unlikely the Moderna or Oxford vaccines will be either.

Prof Van-Tam confirmed to ITV News that Pfizer are carrying out a study on a "small number" of children but he does not "think it's likely that these vaccines will be authorised in children", adding: "Children are not generally at high risk from coronavirus."

Will people who have been vaccinated get an 'immunity passport'?

The 56-year-old was also asked whether "immunity passports" could be brought in for people to prove they have received a coronavirus vaccine.

On Monday, Nadhim Zahawi, the newly appointed minister responsible for the rollout of a vaccine, said it would not be compulsory to receive an injection, but pubs and restaurants could demand to know if a customer has received a coronavirus jab before permitting entry.

The next day, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said there were "no plans" for this to happen.

Prof Van-Tam said he had not "considered the idea of a vaccine passport" and "that it's far too early to talk about those in relation to coronavirus vaccines, the real job of work now is to get our vulnerable people protected".

However, he did not outright deny such a "concept" could be brought in, saying it would not be "new" as some countries operate similar schemes.

He gave the example of Muslims from across the world making the Hajj pilgrimage and needing to be vaccinated against diseases such as yellow fever as a "prerequisite of going to the ceremonies".

Can the clinically vulnerable be vaccinated against Covid?

Speaking before any Covid vaccine was approved for use in the UK, Prof Van-Tam said he believed they would be "absolutely appropriate for people who are shielding" and whose "immune systems are not working as well as a fully healthy person's immune system".

However, he cautioned he could not say "how effective they're going to be in people who have immune systems that are damaged or not working as well" but it was still "absolutely important" anyone offered a vaccine by the NHS should get it.

As soon as vaccinations begin, can we start getting back to normal?

Prof Van-Tam also cautioned that the roll out of a vaccine would not be an "instant fix" and that we could all just "throw off the shackles and go out into the world you previously enjoyed".

Scientists and politicians have previously warned that social distancing and hygiene measures will need to stay in place until the majority of the population is vaccinated and case numbers are much lower.

How long will it be until everyone gets vaccinated?

Prof Van-Tam said he hoped it would not be too long a wait for those lower down the priority list to be vaccinated.

After news of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was released on Wednesday, the government announced that care home residents and their carers would be first in line for the jab, and then the rest of the population aged over-50 would be divided up into five-year brackets and vaccinated from the oldest down.

"The NHS is absolutely determined to move with enormous speed and huge volume," Prof Van-Tam said, adding he believed there could only be "a matter of weeks or a very short matter of months" between those at the top of the list and those much lower down.  

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been approved for use in the UK. Credit: PA

Will a vaccine work as well on people of different ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds?

When questioned by a member of the panel about the higher mortality rates from Covid of people from ethnic minorities - figures released in October by the Office for National Statistics show that black people in the UK are more than twice as likely to die from coronavirus as white people - Prof Van-Tam said that "very little of that in fact, is related to a pure genetic or racial explanation.

"The experts have looked at it and much more of it is related to chronic diseases and the age at which people from BAME [black and minority ethnic] backgrounds start to get chronic diseases, which is things like diabetes, which tends to be earlier than in the white majority in this country".

He continued that the three different vaccines were being tested on a wide range of ethnicities, ages and genders across the world to ensure that everyone feels "confident" getting immunised.

Will a vaccine stop transmission of the virus?

When questioned whether trials showed the vaccines could prevent transmission, Prof Van-Tam said this was still not yet known and that it would only become clear once "millions of people in the UK have taken up these vaccines" whether or not "they're not only stopping disease, they're stopping transmission".

Earlier on Wednesday, Prof Wei Shen Lim, who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation told Sky News that "while we know that this vaccine [the Pfizer/BioNTech one] protects you from getting ill with Covid – we don’t yet know how much it stops you transmitting Covid until we roll it out broadly".

Will a vaccine help create herd immunity?

Prof Van-Tam also told the panel it would also take a considerable amount of time for any herd immunity to kick in, since a large percentage of the population would need to be vaccinated for this to happen.

Will just one dose give a level of protection against Covid?

All three vaccines - Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca - require two does and Prof Van-Tam stressed the importance of people receiving both: "It will be important for everybody who is part of that program to come back for your second dose and finish the course and you'll get full protection probably 10 to 14 days after the second dose."

When will normality return?

While a Covid vaccine is now a reality, it will not mean an immediate return to life as we knew it.

However, Professor Van-Tam was optimistic before the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved, saying: "We are at the very beginning of what I think what I hope will be a journey that takes us into a different place, by late spring."

Is there any truth in anti-vax concerns?

Of those who responded to ITV News' poll saying they would be "reluctant" to be immunised, almost one-in-five (19%) said they avoid vaccinations altogether, while almost one-in-eight (12%) said they would be reluctant to be vaccinated due to a belief “that vaccinations contain microchips or other devices".

Professor Van-Tam dismissed rumours of microchips implanted into the jab, saying even raising it as a question was "not sensible".

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