Covid 19 Vaccine: Questions Answered

A woman getting a vaccine

On the 8th December 2020, Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be given a Pfizer Covid-19 jab. Five months later, over 33 million people have now received the first dose of the vaccine and over 13 million have received the second dose across the United Kingdom (Gov.UK).

The roadmap out of lockdown has provided a glimmer of light for better times ahead, yet the fight against Covid-19 is still very much alive. There is widespread discussion regarding possible mutations and variants of the virus, and concerns as to how effective these variants may or may not be against the vaccine.

We asked Dr Neil Pickles, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, for his expertise on virus mutations.

Do mutations of Covid cause different symptoms? 

Some mutations can cause no difference in symptoms or effects and indeed, many mutations are ‘silent’ and cause no difference. However, some mutations can cause changes such as different symptoms. It is quite common for viruses to mutate to become more transmissible but not necessarily more harmful. For a virus to survive, hosts need to be alive for the virus to replicate before being transmitted to a new host.

Is the Covid vaccine a live vaccine?

The vaccines are slightly different and are the first mRNA vaccines to be brought to market. In the UK, there are three vaccines that have been approved for use:

• Pfizer/BioNTech - this vaccine is RNA based and produces antibodies in the recipient that recognises the spike protein structures. It is not a live vaccine.

• Oxford University/AstraZeneca - this vaccine is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus found in chimpanzees. It is not a live vaccine as it only contains a portion of the Covid-19 virus structure. Genes for the coronavirus spike protein have been incorporated into this virus. When injected, the vaccine enters cells and the immune system will produce antibodies to attack the spike protein structure.

• Moderna - This is quite similar to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in that is not a live version, but RNA based that targets the spike glycoprotein.

The length of protection from the vaccines is unknown at this stage and further does may be required. Some people may get Covid-19 post vaccination, but the infection will be less severe. The evidence is now growing that transmission is reduced following vaccination.

Where did the term vaccination originate? 

The word vaccination comes from the Latin word ‘vacca’, which means cow. This is due to the development of vaccination by Edward Jenner in the 18th century, who realised that people exposed to cowpox were then protected from the very serious virus of smallpox. Due to the danger of this virus, a worldwide vaccination programme ensured that smallpox was eradicated by 1979. This is the first time that a disease has been eradicated and is one the greatest ever human achievements.

Should I be concerned that scientific information often changes? 

News reporting on Covid-19, social media and briefings from politicians has led to an overwhelming amount of information and opinions. The changing nature of scientific information and guidance has led to criticism. However, it is reassuring that scientists review ideas and advice as new evidence from research becomes available. It is the cornerstone of scientific endeavour as we seek to understand and explain complex processes. The scale of research conducted on Covid-19 in the past year is staggering. There have been more than 74,000 Covid-related scientific papers published, which far eclipses anything we have seen before. The scientific community has rallied to this challenge and across many disciplines. The SARS-CoV-2 genome was decoded in 10 days, and although some had been developed previously, no company had ever brought an mRNA vaccine to market before. There are many who can be proud of their contribution to saving lives now and how we can use these advances in the future. Very recently, encouraging news about a new Malaria vaccine has emerged. We should welcome and expect change.

Here at Wrexham Glyndŵr University, we’ve just launched our new BSc (Hons) Biochemistry programme. We have a team of highly experienced, research-active staff all holding their doctorate degrees to guide you through a degree in science. With a combination of both hands-on practical work in the laboratory and a wealth of industry standard skills and knowledge learnt in the classroom, the University is a great enabler to a future career in the science sector.

Sources of information

Public Health Wales – Coronavirus section

Public Health England- Coronavirus section

Centre for disease control (CDC) – Covid 19 index

Government data on UK Coronavirus vaccinations

NHS website explaining the vaccines

Oxford University vaccine knowledge project website


Written by Dr Neil Pickles, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Art, Science and Technology and Leader on Applied Science and Engineering courses at Wrexham Glyndŵr University.