From possible side effects to whether it's been rushed, Dr Anna Blakney sorts Covid vaccination fact from fiction
The country is abuzz with the news that the Pfizer Biontech Covid 19 vaccine is approved for use in the UK from next week, but questions remain in many people's minds over its safety, despite the fact that it has been passed by the UK's independent medicines' regulator. According to a recent Yougov poll, one in five people say they are unlikely to have the jab.
Now one vaccine expert has taken to TikTok to bust myths around the vaccine and answer your questions directly in a bid to increase public confidence. Dr Anna Blakney, 30, is a bioengineer at Imperial College London, where she is developing a vaccine for Covid. Despite only being on TikTok for two months, her posts have had 2.7 million likes.
Anna is part of Team Halo, a collaboration between the UN and The Vaccine Confidence Project, an organisation aiming to improve public perception of vaccines. Team Halo's mission is to connect scientists working on Covid 19 vaccines (there are many in development) with the general public to answer questions and build confidence in coronavirus jabs and Tik Tok is the perfect way to engage with the younger public directly and answer questions. She's also part of a wider TikTok trend for doctor Q&As which are proving especially popular in the time of Covid.
Anna uploads videos for her 196,000 followers on everything vaccine-related and has had more a than 14 million views on one video alone. She addresses common concerns such as 'has the Covid vaccine been rushed?', 'would you take the Covid vaccine'? and 'what are the side effects of the Covid vaccine?'.
Being TikTok, these aren't your traditional Q&A sessions. Anna sets them to popular sounds and TikTok 'trends' to get her message across to the masses with the hashtag #learnontiktok. With so much fake news around the vaccine - no it really won't implant a microchip into your blood! - she uses her platform to challenge misperceptions as well as give a window into her world in the lab.
Strangely, she wasn't a user of the platform before October. “I’d never been on TikTok," she tells us, "but I did an AMA [ask me anything] thread on Reddit about the vaccines which did really well and made it onto the front page of Reddit. Somebody from Team Halo saw it and called and got me involved.
“I think it’s so important to show people what we actually do in the lab, what it looks like to make a vaccine and make it more accessible to people. For the average person, science isn’t very approachable and you don’t have an outlet to learn about cutting edge technologies, so hopefully, my TikTok videos are filling that niche.”
One of her videos is an homage to Dolly Parton, who back in April quietly donated $1m to the Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, which was used to fund research into the Moderna covid vaccine, one of the three currently testing as highly effective.
“I have had lots of really good conversations with people on my videos; I might post a clip asking people if they’d take a vaccine the next day if it were available. I get varied responses and I continue to engage with people about their concerns, which are perfectly valid, so being able to talk to them and share the conversations is really helpful in making them understand.”
She has not had a Covid vaccine herself because to take part in the clinical trials you have to have no antibodies. "I have antibodies so must have had Covid earlier in the year," she says.
Anna mainly films her clips alone, but occasionally ropes in others from her lab to co-star and got her family (including her dog) involved when she went back home to Colorado to visit them last month.
As well as the Imperial College Covid vaccine that Anna is working on, more than 150 coronavirus vaccines are in development across the world, but the three front runners are Pfizer Biontech vaccine (the one approved in the UK) which is an RNA vaccine (RNA works by producing a protein from the virus to train your immune system to recognise the virus) and has 95 per cent efficacy, the Moderna vaccine which is also an RNA vaccine with 95 per cent efficacy and lastly the Oxford Astrazeneca Covid vaccine which is a 'viral vector' vaccine and has up to 90 per cent efficacy. Viral vector vaccines modify other viruses to create a protein similar to that in the Covid virus so your immune system recognises it. Alongside the Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine, the Imperial College Vaccine which Anna is working on, are the only ones developed in the UK.
The Imperial vaccine is currently in 'phase two' of development (Phase one checks for safety and side effects, phase two looks at whether creates an immune response and the final phase three checks whether lessens or prevents the virus).
So what do you want to know? We put our questions to Anna.
Has the Covid vaccine been rushed?
"People say it normally takes five to ten years to develop a vaccine and they wonder if this one is safe. It’s been able to come about so quickly because there's never been such a need to have a vaccine so fast before in any of our lifetimes. Everyone is working together, all hands on deck from scientists to clinicians, all the regulators, all the funders, we don't normally have all of those people to contribute to the progress. It’s always possible to move at this pace, it just normally doesn’t happen.
“The vaccine has to pass the same regulatory checkpoints to make sure it’s safe; it doesn't matter how long development has taken, the checkpoints have to be met.”
How many injections of the Covid vaccine do you need?
"Two. It gives better immunity to be exposed to the virus twice - this boosts your immunity a lot more." We normally leave three to four weeks between vaccinations.'
How often will we need to be vaccinated against Covid?
"We're unsure. It will be determined by the clinical trials. It depends on how long the antibodies last for, which we don't yet know. It could be every year, it could be every five years."
If I’ve had Covid do I still need to have the vaccine?
“Yes. We’re seeing now that the antibodies last for three to six months in most people, so it’s really important that people who have had it get the vaccine as well because your immunity wanes over time. We also know clinical trials that if you’ve already had the vaccine it will boost your immunity over time. From the clinical trials, we’ll learn how long the vaccine can last because we'll work out the lifespan of the antibodies."
What are the immediate side effects of the covid vaccine?
"At the end of clinical trials we will publish all of the side effects and so far most of them are really mild; we’re trying to trick your body into thinking it has the virus so often you get flu-like symptoms but the data so far shows they’re really mild.”
On TikTok Anna explained that The New England Journal of Medicine posted a study that the side effects of the vaccine have been fatigue, chills, headache, muscle pain and pain at the injection site. Anna is quick to point out that list of side effects of Covid 19 are more severe in comparison to the vaccine (loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting, death, difficulty breathing).
What are the long term side effects of the vaccine?
“I’m asked this all the time. All of these vaccines are built on previous vaccines; the reason we’re able to create them so quickly is that they’re based on a well-established vaccine and you just switch out a protein for whatever virus you’re trying to make the vaccine against. Knowing these previous vaccines didn’t cause side effects means we can be quite confident there won’t be any with the Covid 19 vaccine either.
“We still don't know very much about Covid itself right now but we're seeing long-term side effects such as heart damage, or neural damage. With the vaccine, we're preventing the risks of the very unknown virus. If you get the vaccine you don’t get the disease and you don’t ever get the long term side effects.”
Can pregnant people take the vaccine?
"TBD: they'll do follow-up trials to determine this."