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COVID:19 vaccines and MS: What we know so far

MS Helpline Nurses

The first vaccine for the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has been licensed and approved in the UK - it's made by the drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech. It should be available in the coming weeks for ‘priority groups’, including people in care homes, NHS workers, older people and those considered clinically extremely vulnerable.

There have also been very promising results for 2 other vaccines. If they’re shown to be safe they could also be available for some people with multiple sclerosis in the coming weeks and months.

We've talking to lots of you on the MS Helpline about the different coronavirus vaccines and what they could mean for people with MS. Here's what we know so far.

Different kinds of coronavirus vaccines

Three vaccines for coronavirus have already announced promising results, suggesting they could work against the virus for between 70% and 95% of people.

None of these 3 vaccines are ‘live’ vaccines - that’s where the vaccine contains a weak version of the virus or bacteria they prevent. They all work in a different way.

Messenger RNA - using the genetic code

Two of the vaccines are known as ‘messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines’.

They don’t contain any pieces of the actual coronavirus. Instead, they contain part of the genetic code of the virus. That’s carried by the mRNA.

When the vaccine is injected, this part of the virus's genetic code 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

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. In the vaccine, this virus has had its genetic code changed so that it can’t cause disease in humans. 

The change also means it’s got the genetic code for one particular part of the coronavirus - the ‘spike protein’. That’s a tiny 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 it can fight it off. 

Will the vaccines be safe? 

We’ve taken a few calls and emails on the MS Helpline from people asking whether the vaccine’s safe.

All new medicines have to go through rigorous safety tests in clinical trials. This includes vaccines. And that’s still the case with the coronavirus vaccines, despite the speed at which they are being developed.

The trials have been accelerated, with teams working around the clock, so what normally takes years has taken months. But all of the safety processes have still been carried out as normal. 

Vaccines have to pass 3 phases of clinical trials. In phase 1, a small group of volunteers are given the vaccine to make sure it’s safe and has no serious side effects. 

If the vaccine is found to be safe, trials move on to phase 2. That’s when a larger group of people are given the vaccine, with various ages and backgrounds. This lets researchers continue monitoring its safety and side effects, and shows how the vaccine might work for different people.

In Phase 3 the vaccine is given to an even larger group, to confirm that it works and that it’s safe.

The vaccine can only be approved for use with the general public if it passes all 3 phases. In the UK, The Medicines and Healthcare Regulations Authority (MHRA), reviews all medicines and their safety data to decide if they should approve them.

Watch our video to find out more about how drugs are developed

What about if I take a DMT?

If you’re taking an MS disease modifying therapy (DMT), speak to your own MS team when a vaccine is available. They can give you advice about coronavirus vaccines based on your circumstances and the DMT you take. 

If the vaccines are approved, there will be lots more information available about possible side effects and anyone who should avoid or delay taking that particular vaccine. 

Can people with MS get a coronavirus vaccine? 

The UK government has arranged for supplies of coronavirus vaccines so that people can be immunised as soon as possible after they’re approved. But it will take months to immunise the whole country, so there is a UK-wide plan to prioritise certain groups.

The plan has been prepared by an independent group made up mainly of academics and health professionals. What they’ve published is a draft list of people who would be prioritised for the coronavirus vaccine - so the plans might change.

At the top of the draft list are older residents in care homes and staff working in those homes, followed by health and social care workers and people aged 80 and over. 

Different age groups between 65 and 80 are next on the priority list, with clinically extremely vulnerable on a par with people aged 70 and over at number 4 in the 9-point list.

Adults aged 18 to 65 years who are in an ‘at-risk group’ - this includes people living with MS – follow on at number 6. However, it is important to note that  there may be exceptions to this based on advice from your MS team. 

They’ve said this priority list is based on the fact evidence shows that age is by far the strongest risk factor associated with becoming seriously unwell or dying from COVID-19.

Read more about plans for distributing coronavirus vaccines at gov.uk

Wherever people are on the priority list, we don’t know at the moment how soon someone will get a vaccine. And these plans might change, especially if we learn more about how effective the vaccines are for different groups.

Update from our medical advisers

We’ve spoken with our medical advisers to answer more of your questions about COVID-19 vaccines and MS.

Read more about the vaccine

Speak to an MS Nurse

We're here on the MS Helpline to give you medical information on things like treatment options, side-effects of medication, and managing symptoms.

Call us on 0808 800 8000 Monday to Friday, 9am to 7pm except bank holidays.