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MS and the COVID-19 vaccines

Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine? Are the coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca or Moderna ‘live’ vaccines?  

We’ve spoken to leading healthcare professionals to help answer your questions about COVID-19 vaccines and MS.

Your own MS team can give you more advice based on your circumstances, treatments, and whether getting a COVID-19 vaccine is right for you.

Our medical advisers have published a consensus statement about COVID-19 vaccines and disease modifying therapies (DMTs).

We updated this page on Friday 19 February with information about preparing for your vaccination and on Tuesday 16 February with new information about shielding in England and the UK government's priority list 

  1. When can I get a COVID-19 vaccine?
  2. Can I have a COVID-19 vaccine if I'm having an MS relapse or take steroids?
  3. Will a COVID-19 vaccine interfere with my other medications?
  4. Do I need to prepare anything before my COVID-19 vaccination?
  5. What about COVID-19 vaccine side effects?
  6. Are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines ‘live’ vaccines?
  7. Which COVID-19 vaccine is best for someone with MS?
  8. Will my partner or carer be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine?
  9. Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I’m pregnant?
  10. How is the vaccine being distributed? 
  11. Why are there different COVID-19 vaccines being developed?
  12. How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?
  13. Do any of the COVID-19 vaccines contain egg or animal products?
  14. Have the COVID-19 vaccines been tested in people with MS?
  15. How do we know that the COVID-19 vaccine will be safe and effective for people with MS?
  16. Will the vaccine be available on the NHS, or can I pay for a COVID-19 vaccine?
  17. Will health and social care professionals be given the COVID-19 vaccine?

1. When can I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccine is available to groups of people on the UK government’s priority list. People with MS who are shielding will already be in group 4. Everyone with MS who’s not in groups 1-5 is in group 6.

The UK government announced on 16 February that another 1.7 million people in England will be added to the shielding (also known as clinically extremely vulnerable) list and will move into vaccine group 4. If you're added to the shielding list the government will contact you to let you know. 

To arrange your vaccine, the NHS will phone, text or write to you. They might contact you by phone and by letter. A genuine contact from the NHS won’t ask for payment or for you to send personal documents to prove your identity. 

In England, if you’re in any of the top 4 priority groups, you should already have been invited for the vaccine. If you haven’t, the government is urging you to call 119 or book online with the NHS.

In Scotland if you’re in any of the top 5 priority groups, you should already have been invited for the vaccine. If you haven't, you should contact your GP or visit the NHS Inform website.

In Wales, some NHS local health boards are asking people in the top 4 priority groups to get in touch if they haven’t been invited for the vaccine yet. Find your local advice from the Welsh government website

In Northern Ireland, if you’ve got a shielding letter or if you’re 60 or older, you can book online. Find out more and book on the Health and Social Care Northern Ireland website.

Even though vaccines have been approved, it will take many months for everyone to be vaccinated. In preparation, the UK government pre-ordered millions of COVID-19 vaccines so they’re ready as soon as possible.

There’s a UK-wide plan to prioritise certain groups to be vaccinated first.

Vaccine priority groups

  • Group 1: Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
  • Group 2: People 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers 
  • Group 3: People 75 years of age and over 
  • Group 4: People 70 years of age and over and ‘clinically extremely vulnerable' people
  • Group 5: People 65 years of age and over 
  • Group 6: Everyone aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality and unpaid carers (friends or family). Group 6 includes everyone with MS who’s not already in groups 1-5.  
  • Group 7: People 60 years of age and over
  •  Group 8: People 55 years of age and over
  •  Group 9: People 50 years of age and over 

But there might be exceptions to this, based on advice from your MS team. They could say a vaccine isn’t right for you at this time.

Read our medical advisers' statement on vaccines and DMTs 

2. Can I have a COVID-19 vaccine if I'm having an MS relapse or take steroids?

Our medical advisers recommend  not having the vaccination while you're having a relapse. 

They also advise waiting 2 weeks after completing a course of steroids to treat a relapse, before being vaccinated.  

3. Will a COVID-19 vaccine interfere with my other medications?

Our medical advisers say you should wait 2 weeks after completing a course of steroids to treat a relapse, before being vaccinated. 

At the moment, we’re not sure if a COVID-19 vaccine will interfere with any other medications you might be taking. But our medical advisers don’t think the COVID-19 vaccine will stop DMTs from working. They say this because of what we know about the way these vaccines work, and evidence from studies of other vaccines and MS.

Read our medical advisers' consensus statement

Your MS team can answer specific questions about your own circumstances. 

4. Do I need to prepare anything before my COVID-19 vaccination?

You'll need to bring a face covering, unless you don’t wear one because of your MS or another condition. And if your appointment is at a vaccination centre you’ll need your booking reference numbers. 

You can have someone with you as a carer if you usually would. 

When you go for your vaccination, you’ll be asked to read the patient safety leaflet. This is normal for any kind of vaccination.

Read the Astra Zeneca vaccine patient safety leaflet

Read the Pfizer vaccine patient safety leaflet

With some DMTs – though not all – your MS team might have specific advice about the timing of the vaccine. That’s to make the vaccine as effective as possible.

Read our medical advisers' statement about the vaccine and DMTs 
 

5. What about COVID-19 vaccine side effects? 

Some people report no side effects at all from the COVID-19 vaccines. 

When people do notice something, the most common reactions are headaches, arm pain, body aches, chills or fever lasting a few hours to a few days. Over-the-counter painkillers, like paracetamol, can help with this. 

Some of the possible side effects are similar to MS symptoms, including tiredness and muscle pain. But if you’re worried about any symptoms, you should contact your MS team as you usually would.

We know about these possible side effects because thousands of people taking the vaccines were monitored during the clinical trials. And when people report new side effects to a doctor or nurse (or use the Yellow Card scheme) this is recorded and the information about the vaccine is updated. That way, there’s ongoing monitoring for side effects in the months and years after the vaccine is given. 

It is possible that once the vaccines have been given to millions of people, rarer side effects will be discovered. The Association of British Neurologists (ABN) points out in their vaccine guidance that these will be much rarer than the risk of COVID-19 infection and its serious complications. 

Because none of the licensed vaccines are ‘live vaccines’ it’s impossible to catch the coronavirus from the vaccine. 

Read more in the Association of British Neurologists (ABN) guidance on COVID-19 vaccines for people with neurological conditions 

6. Are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines ‘live’ vaccines?

The approved Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines are not ‘live’ vaccines. Neither is the third vaccine that’s approved, made by Moderna. 

A ‘live’ vaccine contains a weak version of the virus or bacteria they prevent. Many neurologists would suggest you avoid 'live' vaccines if you’ve recently taken certain DMTs or high-dose steroids. This is because although the virus or bacteria that the vaccine contains is weakened, there is still a small chance that it can cause disease in people with immune systems that have been weakened by DMTs.

The approved vaccines for COVID-19 work in a different way.

7. Which COVID-19 vaccine is best for someone with MS? 

It’s too soon to compare the 2 available COVID-19 vaccines and say if one might be better than the other for people with MS. 

But the research information we have already confirms that the best way to stay out of hospital with COVID-19 is to get either of the vaccines now on offer (made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca). 

Read more in the Association of British Neurologists (ABN) guidance on COVID-19 vaccines for people with neurological conditions 

8. Will my partner or carer be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes, partners and unpaid carers who provide care and support to someone living with MS are now on the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine.

If you’re the main carer for someone, you’re now in group 6 on the list alongside people aged 16 to 64 who have underlying health conditions. The UK government says this applies if you’re ‘in receipt of a carer’s allowance’, or you’re ‘the main carer of an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if the carer falls ill’.

Of course, family members and unpaid carers might also be in the priority list for other reasons, like their age or a health condition.

9. Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I’m pregnant? 

The licensed COVID-19 vaccines aren’t generally recommended if you’re pregnant. But you might want to discuss having the vaccine with your doctor or nurse if:

  • you’re at very high risk of catching COVID-19 (for example, you’re a frontline health or social care worker)

or

If you have MS but these don’t apply, you wouldn’t usually be advised to have the vaccine if you're pregnant.

Read the UK government COVID-19 vaccine guidance if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding 

10. How is the vaccine being distributed?

Some people had the COVID-19 vaccine as early as December 2020. But the distribution depends where people are on the priority list, and it will take time to vaccinate all the priority groups.

We can't say exactly when someone will get the vaccine, but there are local and national plans to make it available.

In England, this involves hospital ‘hubs’ and special GP vaccination centres. The hospital will get in touch with you by letter or phone if you have been identified as priority for the vaccine (by using your medical records). In the coming weeks, the vaccines will also be rolled out to care homes and to bigger vaccination centres across the country. The government are hoping to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups by spring 2021.

In Wales, the government plan to deploy the vaccine in phases – starting with hospitals and then in community settings, which will include mobile vaccination centres. People will be sent appointments depending on where they are on the schedule and their risks.

In Northern Ireland, the first phase of vaccination roll-out started with care home residents and staff, as well as front-line healthcare workers. The plan is now for everyone over 80 to get their first dose of the vaccine by the end of January and other priority groups after that.  

In Scotland the vaccine is being given through hospitals, mass vaccination centres and smaller local ones, pharmacies and GPs. The government hopes to offer the vaccine to everyone in the 9 priority groups by May 2021.

These plans are being reviewed regularly and they could change if new vaccines are approved and as more information is collected.

Read the UK government Q&A about why you might have to wait for the vaccine

Read the UK government information for healthcare professionals and the public about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

Read the UK government information for healthcare professionals and the public about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

11. Why are different COVID-19 vaccines being developed?

Different COVID-19 vaccines are being developed to give us the best chance of finding effective ones. There are lots of ways to make a vaccine for a virus. What they all have in common is getting our immune system ready to fight off the virus. They make sure our system recognises the virus if it gets in.

Researchers from around the world are all working to develop vaccines for COVID-19. And at the start of the race to find it, no-one knew for sure what approach would work best.

There seem to be several different types that work well, and it could mean we have different vaccines for different groups of people. For example, older people’s immune systems might respond best to one, while teenagers find another more effective.

Having lots of different approaches also makes it more likely we’ll find better ways to store and deliver the vaccine. Some need super-cold storage, others can be kept in a household fridge for months on end. The first vaccines to report results – including the approved vaccines – need 2 jabs. It’s possible that others might need only one, or be given as a nasal spray.

12. How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is what’s known as a ‘messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine’. The Moderna vaccine also works in this way. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has a different way of working - it’s known as a ‘viral vector vaccine’.   

Messenger RNA - using the genetic code

The messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines don’t contain any pieces of the actual coronavirus. Instead, they contain part of the genetic code of the virus, carried by the mRNA. These vaccines work by injecting this part of the coronavirus's genetic code, which trains the body’s immune system to attack coronavirus if it’s exposed to it.

You can read more about the way these 2 vaccines work on the Pfizer and Moderna websites - the drug companies which have developed them.

The Oxford vaccine – a ‘viral vector vaccine’

The other vaccine has been developed by the University of Oxford and drug company AstraZeneca. It’s known as a ‘viral vector vaccine’. It uses a weak version of the virus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees. This helps it get into the body like an actual virus would. But in the vaccine, this virus has had its genetic code changed so that it can’t actually cause disease in humans.

The change also means it’s got the genetic code for one particular part of the coronavirus - the ‘spike protein’. It’s just that, a spike on the outside of the virus that it uses to get inside our cells.

The vaccine makes the same spike so our immune system can recognise it if the actual coronavirus gets in - and then fight it off.

13. Do any of the available COVID-19 vaccines contain egg or animal products?

None of the 3 licensed COVID-19 vaccines contain egg or animal products.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was made using human kidney cells.

14. Have the COVID-19 vaccines been tested on people with MS?

We don’t know yet how many people with MS might have taken the COVID-19 vaccines during the clinical trials. That detail about who was on the trials hasn’t been published yet.

But we do know they looked at whether the vaccines worked on people with certain medical conditions and in older people. They did this because the immune responses for these people can work less effectively and therefore give them less protection through vaccines.

The 3 vaccines which have shared their initial results show the vaccine is between 70-95% effective in people involved in the trial as a whole.

Pfizer-BioNTech plan to check how effective the vaccine is for people with weakened ('compromised') immune systems - for example if you use certain DMTs. They’ll do this through a clinical trial and through their ongoing monitoring of people in the months and years after taking the vaccine.

15. How do we know the COVID-19 vaccine will be safe and effective for people with MS?

All new medicines have to go through rigorous safety tests in clinical trials – including vaccines. This includes 3 stages of clinical trials where people who take the vaccine are very closely monitored. Researchers constantly check the safety and side effects through these trials.

Although the trials for the coronavirus vaccines have been accelerated, safety processes have still been carried out as normal.

The process can take up to a few months, but the process has so far been quicker for COVID-19 because the experts are prioritising and checking data as it’s produced - rather than waiting until after everything is completed as they usually would. So they can speed up the process while keeping it thorough.

Any COVID-19 vaccine is only approved once it meets these robust standards of effectiveness, safety and quality.

Association of British Neurologists

The Association of British Neurologists (ABN) say they don’t expect that COVID-19 vaccines will worsen someone’s MS – for example, by causing a relapse. And they have no reason to believe these will be dangerous in people with MS, including people taking immunosuppressive drugs.

We don't know for sure that the vaccines will work for everyone with MS. It’s possible that people on some MS treatments might have a reduced response to the vaccines.

This could happen because vaccines work by triggering an immune response and DMTs work by dampening down the immune system. This effect from the DMT might change over time. So you may have a reduced response for some time after an infusion, for example, but this might not be permanent.

Our medical advisers say that even a reduced response is likely to be better than none, so you should still get vaccinated if you’re on a DMT that might affect the vaccine like this.

Your own MS team can give you more advice, based on your circumstances, any treatments you take, and on whether getting a COVID-19 vaccine is right for you.

The UK government has said that adults who have a weakened immune system ('immunocompromised') should get a COVID-19 vaccine as a matter of priority. They say this includes people having stem cell transplants, and adults receiving alemtuzumab, ofatumumab or rituximab. This doesn’t guarantee the vaccine will be completely effective if you take these treatments, but you will get priority if you and your MS team agree it’s right for you.

Now a vaccine has been approved, there will be lots more information coming out about possible side effects and anyone who should avoid or delay taking that particular vaccine. We’ll keep up to date with any changes.

Read our medical advisers’ statement on treatments and COVID-19 vaccines

16. Will the vaccine be available on the NHS, or can I pay for a COVID-19 vaccine?

The vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna will be available on the NHS and free of charge to those who are eligible. At first, this will be for people on the priority list. So a vaccine might not be available to you on the NHS straight away.

We don’t know yet if other vaccines being developed will also be available on the NHS.

At some point, people might be able to buy the vaccine, but this isn’t certain to happen and you can't at the moment. 

To arrange your vaccine, the NHS will phone, text or write to you. They might contact you by phone and by letter. A genuine contact from the NHS won’t ask for payment or for you to send personal documents to prove your identity.

17. Will health and social care professionals be given the COVID-19 vaccine?

Many health and social care professionals will be given the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health and social care staff are at risk of contracting COVID-19, but also of passing it on to the people they care for. The UK government have made it clear that the NHS and social care system needs to be protected so services can continue as normal.

Care home staff and their residents are considered highest priority for vaccination, with health and social care workers following them.

 

We updated this page on Monday 1 March