Yesterday, I joined a small queue outside a big blue bus to get my Covid vaccination jab. That short queue was the culmination of nearly a year of pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, and oddly slightly emotional after the jab was administered.
It all started last week when a message popped up on my phone telling me I was now eligible for the covid jab.
That was more of a relief than you might realise, as my GP kept messing up my medical records for the flu jab which I had last October and chasing me by text message to come in for one, and I kept phoning to tell them they’d already given it to me.
Normally I would have ignored the chaser letter I received in January, as we’re leaving the flu season, but as we’re also entering the covid jab season, the record-keeping problems did give me cause to worry, quite a lot. I eventually offered up a blood sacrifice to the printer gods so I could print a letter asking them to update their records. I’ve received no reply.
Worried that my covid jab records might be inaccurate, getting the text message telling me I am now eligible for a covid jab was quite a relief.
In the end, it’s a fairly simple process – click the website address in the text message, fill in your date of birth and then it presents three local venues to choose from. You select a date and time, and wait for the appointment.
On the day itself, my chosen venue was in Greenwich, in an old double-decker bus which has been repainted in NHS blue and given a medical feeling white paint makeover on the inside as well. After verifying details and being handed a leaflet about the vaccine and possible side effects, joined the first seriously socially distanced queue I have seen in quite some time.
Once inside, sitting in the space formerly allocated to prams and wheelchairs, the Doctor checked details, asked a few questions about recent medical issues and chatted about possible side effects.
I in turn warned him that for some reason, about half the needles that go into my arm do so without a problem, and for some reason, about half really hurt so don’t worry if I groan loudly.
This was a good day, no pain at all.
A little card to keep and bring back in a few weeks time for the second round, a sticker to wear, and off you go.
A year of waiting, and all over in about 20 minutes.
For the record, I got the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine.
At the time of writing, I am waiting to see if I get any side-effects. The arm is a bit sore and I am feeling a little woozy, but I get that most years after the flu jab, and the side effects from that vary each year from nothing to a couple of days off work in bed.
It’s a relief, that the long dark tunnel we were all thrust into last year is finally coming to an end. Yes, we’ve got a few more months to go, but the speed of the vaccine rollout has been frankly astonishing and so much faster than most people expected.
We might need booster shots this winter to mop up the variants and other uglies that emerge, but for many of us already used to an annual flu jab, this is fairly routine.
Of course, managing the disease is down to lots of people having the jab, and although there are pockets of denial still around, the uptake so far has been higher than had originally been expected. People trust science more than “that person who posts about 5G on facebook”, and that’s a Very Good Thing.
Is it safe?
Setting aside the conspiracy people who worry about microchips and the like, it is possible though to understand some of the concerns. Vaccines usually take years to develop, and yet, we had a covid vaccine in barely 9 months. How is that safe?
I am only a modestly informed bystander, but it’s simple to understand if rarely explained.
Most treatments can be put into two very broad camps — those that seek to create a long term effect, and those which seek a short term effect.
For example, your preferred headache pill is good at salving your headache today, but it won’t do much for you in the long term. It has a short term effect.
However, long term effect drugs do need to be studied for years to check what the effects are, good or bad.
I was part of a medical trial myself some years ago looking at an idea that an older drug heavy regime for treating HIV might be possible to reformulate and use as a cheaper, and almost as good, alternative to modern expensive drugs. As older drugs are much cheaper, while this had no impact on the NHS, it might make it possible for poorer countries to treat many more people than using modern expensive drugs. This seemed to me to be a very good thing, so happily joined the trials knowing any downsides would be detected very quickly and I would be looked after.
As HIV is a slow-moving illness, I was on that trial for three years to monitor what happened.
Many other life-long illnesses need long drug trials.
So why not the covid vaccines?
The covid vaccines, while treating an illness new to science, the family that it comes from – the coronavirus — is not new. Many drugs already exist to treat other varieties of coronaviruses, so there’s an awful lot of existing medical information around about treating them safely.
The new virus needs a new vaccine, and as with all new vaccines, it went through safety checks, but the main trials were mainly concerned with whether the vaccine worked — they already knew it was safe.
The reason why the vaccine doesn’t need long term trials is that its effect is swift and possibly short term. In fact, the short term nature of the vaccine, may as with the flu jab, lead to people needing annual boosters.
If anything, the vaccine might not last long enough — so there’s no need to run long trials before using it.
The main reason though why drug trials often take years — is that they often spend more time finding the money and finding the patients than running the trials.
In 2020 that really wasn’t a problem.
Governments, charities, and Dolly Parton poured money into drug trials.
And as we’re in a pandemic, there wasn’t a problem finding volunteers to test the jab either. The medical trial I was on, if I recall, spent a couple of years just trying to find enough volunteers to be able to run a statistically significant test.
The vast numbers of people volunteering for trials was probably the only upside of a pandemic.
Now I am no idiot just following doctors orders. If a doctor tells me that I can cure myself of something by jumping off a cliff onto a pile of rocks, that fails the common-sense test. It just wouldn’t sound right. If a doctor says, this jab will treat an illness, and if I was worried, I could get a second opinion, but in general, following a doctor’s advice on medical matters is a sensible thing to do.
If I have a problem with my home plumbing, I trust a plumber to know more than I do to fix it. If I have a problem with anything I don’t understand, I turn to an expert who does understand.
If I have a medical problem, I turn to the medical professionals — who have years of training, years of experience, and are tightly regulated to make sure that they don’t behave negligently.
Human mistakes happen, but a well-regulated system learns from them.
That’s why year after year, medical science gets better and gets safer.
And that’s why yesterday I let a medical professional stick a needle in my arm and pump a fluid inside that will protect me from a nasty illness.
But more than that, it probably protects other people. I can still get the virus, but in a few weeks, I will not only be less likely to get ill myself, but I may also be less likely to pass it onto other people.
My decision to take the vaccine is good for me, but I feel very comforted knowing that the decision was also very good for everyone else.
So if you’re worried about the vaccine, chat to a medical professional. They won’t laugh at you but will listen and answer your concerns.
It’s not just for you, but for society as a whole – a giant collective effort we can all play our small part in.
And you get a nice sticker to wear at the end of it.