AFTER nine long months, two lockdowns, more than 1.7 million confirmed cases and almost 70,000 deaths, people in the UK are now feeling slightly more optimistic about the battle against Covid-19.

That’s because a vaccine, which is said to be 94 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19, is being rolled out across the country after it was approved by safety regulators.

Grandmother Margaret Keenan, 90, became the first person in the world to receive the long-awaited jab on December 8, as part of the largest immunisation programme in the UK's history.

The British government has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine, which is produced by the companies Pfizer and BioNTech, and up to four million are due to arrive in the country this month.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, has answered questions often asked about the vaccine and dispelled some of the conspiracy theories that are circulating on social media.

Can the vaccine provide widespread immunity against Covid-19 in the UK?

“Yes, if it gets into enough people.

“There is no data on it (protection against the virus) lasting more than a few weeks, but I expect it to.

“I expect it to last for a few years, but we can’t know that until we’ve had it in people for that length of time.

“You can’t say it will last 10 years until you’ve had it in people for that period of time.

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“The vaccine needs to prevent you from picking up the virus and spreading it to somebody else. We don’t know if this vaccine actually does or not.

“There are vaccines that do that and there are vaccines that don’t.

“What we do know is if you get the virus, it reduces your chances of becoming sick. We can’t yet know whether this phenomenon of protecting other people by immunising a large proportion of the population will work.

“If it works, then you will probably need to immunise around 70 to 80 per cent of the population. But I stress, it’s contingent on being able to prevent people from being able to pick up the virus.”

What happens if the virus mutates? Will the vaccine still be effective?

“There are mutants of this virus. Viruses mutate and it would be more interesting to scientists if it didn’t.

“It is entirely possible that there will be mutations picked up in time that render a vaccine less useful. But we have experience of that with other viruses, like the flu, and vaccines, so it wouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

“The groundwork is in place and mutation is not something that particularly worries me.”

This vaccine has been produced relatively quickly. Has it been rushed?

“A lot of the technology was already in place. They basically just plugged this virus into the technology to come up with the vaccine.

“A lot of time is spent in the lab, but a lot of time is also usually spent applying for money and waiting for it.

“Money was just thrown at this and quite rightly when you consider the economic and societal damage this virus does.

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“Some trial elements were also done in parallel. They are usually done in sequence with a healthy gap between each one, but that didn’t happen this time.

“As soon as it became apparent that it was probably safe, they could get on and start injecting it into more people to see if it actually worked or not.”

Is it reasonable to have concerns about the long-term impact the vaccine could have on someone’s health?

“That’s always a problem with any vaccine. There are no vaccines that are completely without concerns for a few people.

“You have to weigh that against what not having a vaccine means for human health.

“We don’t really fully understand what putting that molecule into somebody’s arm effectively does.

“Some people have raised concerns that it might present some toxicity problems, but it has been through safety trials.”

Reading Chronicle: Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of ReadingDr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading

Why do some people feel unwell or sore after a vaccine?

“That’s your immune system reacting to the vaccine.

“Often, when you get an infectious disease, the feeling of being unwell and a lot of the damage done to you is done by your immune system.

“That’s what happens when you have a vaccine – your immune system reacts to it. While it doesn’t damage you, it can make you feel unwell.”

Are you confident the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has taken every step necessary to ensure this vaccine is safe?

“I’m sure they have been through all the evidence with a fine-tooth comb and looked at it very carefully."

The vaccine needs to be stored at -70C, will that create a logistical nightmare?

“The problem is getting it out to pharmacies and GP surgeries that are able to store it for long enough at the right temperature.

“The big -80C freezers you need are only found in big hospitals, university research labs and R&D companies. It’s a serious bit of kit.

“Your average GP surgery and pharmacy just isn’t going to have one, so you need a work around.”

The government has granted Pfizer immunity from being sued if there are problems with the vaccine. Has that happened with other vaccines?

“It does not happen with other vaccines, but it speaks to the fact that it is being developed quickly.

“I think it is a mistake for the government and, in this instance Pfizer, to not discuss why they’ve done it.”

Some people have also been sharing conspiracy theories online and making claims about the virus, such as…

If you’re not high risk, you’re better off catching Covid-19 and recovering

“Even if somebody is young and healthy, there is still a chance they will end up with what we are now calling ‘Long Covid’.

“There is a very real possibility of long-term health effects after getting it.”

The vaccine may contain a microchip that can be used to track people

*Laughs loudly*

“No, that stuff is just crazy.”

This Covid-19 vaccine and other vaccines can cause autism

“There’s no evidence of that. It was published in The Lancet (a medical journal) years ago and has since been retracted.

“It has been looked into and gone over with a fine-toothed comb and nobody serious has found any evidence of that.”

Vaccines can alter your DNA

“No, wrong. Rubbish.”

The Thalidomide scandal proves that we should be wary of a vaccine that has been produced quickly

“Thalidomide was a very specific form of chemical that was given to pregnant women in the 1950s, to stop them from getting morning sickness, and it caused birth defects.

“Thalidomide and vaccines are very different things.”