Although Western Australia has been in the fortunate position that has seen us spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all understandably keen to be vaccinated against this virus. The Australian Government has indicated it is going to roll out vaccinations in the first half of this year.

This is encouraging news in our efforts to control the pandemic, and to ensure that we can continue to get back to something approaching normality with our work and social lives.

We asked our Clinical Advisory Group Member A/Prof John Blakey about the COVID-19 vaccination:

When will people with asthma get the COVID-19 vaccination?

“Patience with this vaccine rollout will be important. You may have seen in the Government vaccine information that asthma is not included in the priority groups considered high risk. Although the concerns of people with asthma are understandable, over 100 studies including millions of people show that having asthma is not a risk factor for severe COVID-19 disease. This is unlike other viruses such as influenza.

That said, uncontrolled asthma is a risk factor for doing badly if you are sick with COVID-19. I’d therefore encourage people to keep their asthma well-controlled by using their preventer inhaler daily and seeing a clinician if they do not have good control of their asthma symptoms.”

Does the vaccine work straight away?

“The next stage in which patience will be required is that the vaccines that are planned to be used initially will need to be given twice. This is similar to many other common vaccines such as that for measles, mumps and rubella. The reason vaccines are given twice is because one dose usually only provides about 40 to 50% protection against a disease without a subsequent dose. Protection will also take place somewhere around 2 to 4 weeks after the injection.  Similarly, after the second dose, the high rate of protection (around 90%) won’t be achieved for approximately another 2 to 4 weeks.”

We hear the Pfizer vaccine is to be used in WA. Can you tell us more about the Pfizer vaccine?

“This vaccine has shown to be extremely effective in preventing COVID-19 disease in clinical trials when compared with no vaccine. It has been developed quickly as it uses a newer type of technology than vaccines that people are used to receiving. A standard vaccine is an injection of a part of a virus that is recognised as foreign by the body, and directly activates the immune system. As it is only part of the virus, it is not possible to actually catch the disease through vaccination.

These new mRNA vaccines are like a set of instructions for the body to produce little parts of the virus, and then present them to the body’s immune system, which gets the body ready to defend against COVID-19. This new technology also allows vaccinations to be altered more quickly in future as the virus changes over time.

Although these vaccines are quick to develop and alter, the downside is that they need to be stored at a very low temperature (-80°C) which means their rollout to areas outside cities can be challenging.”

Are there any safety issues with the vaccine?

“There have been very few recorded safety issues with the Pfizer jab. In common with most vaccinations, people may get relatively mild headaches, pain at the injection site, sore joints or muscles, and sometimes nausea. Very rarely (less than 1 in 1,000) people experience severe reactions. Our knowledge around the safety profile is evolving as millions of doses are being given globally. So far this has been reassuring, but if you have any concerns talk to your GP or specialist.”

What about people with asthma/COPD and allergies, can they have the Pfizer vaccine?

“This vaccine does not contain the types of ingredients that people commonly react to or need to avoid such as egg, fish oil or gelatine/alpha gal. It is therefore safe for people with those allergies. The vaccine does contain an ingredient very commonly found in medicines and cosmetics call polyethylene glycol. True allergy to polyethylene glycol is extraordinarily rare, but if this has been confirmed by a specialist immunologist then you would need an alternative vaccine (for example the one developed by AstraZeneca).”

Is the vaccine safe for people on specialist asthma treatment?

“There are no known interactions with COVID-19 vaccines and asthma medications. I understand that some people have heard from social media that they should not have the vaccine if they are on a monoclonal antibody for their asthma (for example for Fasenra, Nucala, Xolair). It’s therefore worth emphasising this is not the case and we’d encourage these people with severe disease to have the vaccine. I’m sure I’d speak for my asthma specialist colleagues such as Prof Phil Thompson, and Drs LiPing Chung at Fiona Stanley and Steve Oo at the Perth Children’s Hospital when saying that we’d be keen to talk to people on antibodies if they have ongoing concerns about the vaccine.”

When should I have my annual flu vaccination?

“The seasonal influenza vaccination program usually begins around April/May and may overlap with the timing of the COVID-19 vaccinations becoming available for different priority groups. It is just as important as ever that people with asthma, COPD and other respiratory conditions continue to have their annual flu jab.

We are currently unsure of the best course of action regarding the timing of having these vaccinations.  Research is underway looking into whether they are as safe and effective if given at the same time, or if staggering the doses is better. 

There will be more information closer to the roll-out dates, so please speak to your pharmacist, GP or specialist to find out more nearer the time, and check the Government health advice as it becomes available.”

Looking for more resources on COVID-19, asthma and COPD?

The following resources may also be helpful to better understand asthma, COPD, COVID-19 and vaccinations.

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