I received my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on 24th February 2021. So, what was the experience like; and what can you expect when it is your turn?
On 16th February I received a most welcome text message from my local surgery in East Kent informing me I was being invited to book a Covid-19 vaccination. I followed the link in the text message, confirmed my DOB and was offered a calendar of available dates. The first available date was the following Wednesday. This came as a surprise as I did not consider myself to be in the first six cohorts as set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) on the groups that should be prioritised for vaccination. I am under 55 without any underlying health conditions. The only logical explanation is that I was picked up by the ‘sweep’ conducted by the new government algorithm. This got me thinking about my overall health history to try and work out how I had run up such a score. 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer; rapid treatment and follow up chemo meant that I was given the all clear on this after a few years. I suffer from prostatitis, which although uncomfortable at times is a chronic condition which is manageable. And then there is the recent online consultation with my GP where I discussed family history of heart failure, and after a period of self-monitoring blood pressure I was put on blood pressure medication. Add a touch of increased BMI due to lockdown inertia and there you have it. A score which the computer considers worthy of a bump up the list.
At the time of writing, upwards of 18 million people in the UK had been vaccinated so the process was streamlined already and went quickly. On the day I had the vaccine a further 362,000 other people had their injection. I received a vaccine card with the manufacturer, date of vaccination with an open space for the second dose. The vaccinator asked me some general questions about whether or not I have had any symptoms of an active COVID infection recently, if I was on blood thinners, which arm I would like the jab in, if this was my first dose and if I had any questions.
The vaccination itself was the least painful I’ve ever received; it only hurt slightly from the needle. When the vaccinator said she was done, I almost didn’t believe her because it was such a smooth and painless injection. It is recommended after any vaccine to stay close by for at least 15 minutes post-injection, as this is the most common timeframe that serious adverse reactions - like severe allergic reactions - might occur. I was offered a seat in the waiting room and had an egg timer placed by my chair with a countdown; then it was just a case of waiting. I asked my wife Jane to accompany me to the vaccination centre just in case. The last vaccine I had was a rabies jab taken prior to a cycling trip to India in 2009. This jab is administered over four doses, one week apart and on the occasion of the last vaccine I experienced a metallic taste in my mouth, very similar to the sensation I used to get from the numerous CT scans I had post-cancer. The nurse seemed to be concerned by this and asked me to take a piriton tablet and sit down for 20 minutes in the clinic. Piriton tablets are indicated for symptomatic control of all allergic conditions responsive to antihistamines, including hay fever, vasomotor rhinitis, urticaria, angioneurotic oedema, food allergy, drug and serum reactions, insect bites etc.
As I was walking back to my car after those 15 minutes elapsed, I felt slightly warm and I also had a slight headache, though it is difficult for me to say if that had anything to do with the vaccine versus just a side effect of the increased tension such an occasion offers. This slight headache did persist all day. The next morning I felt well when I woke up, aside from feeling some injection site pain, which felt better almost immediately when I move my arm around. The pain was completely gone around 36 hours post-vaccination. No matter how quickly it appeared and then disappeared, this pain did not impact my daily life. The arm pain was the worst part of getting it. While sharing this information, it would be remiss of me to not mention the mental impact of receiving this vaccine.
I first heard about a type of viral pneumonia spreading in the Wuhan province of China back in December of 2019. At the time, it was not well understood and unclear if it could spread between people. Obviously, a year later, we know from experience that this novel coronavirus strain does indeed spread person to person, and its consequences have devastated any plans for 2020 we could have made. Back at the vaccination centre the sense of hope I could feel in the room was undeniable. People were full of nervous excitement, their voices hushed. It feels finally like there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel, one that even just a month ago felt like it was unending. While the vaccine is highly effective, we do not know for how long the protection against COVID-19 lasts. We will still need to wear masks and practice social distancing, even when vaccinated. In addition to this, there is a large segment of the public that do not trust a vaccine developed so quickly. Some are concerned about unknown long-term effects of the vaccine, while others are feeding into conspiracy theories—and many of them exist in every corner of the Internet—about microchips, 5G networks, mind control, etc…
I can certainly appreciate concerns about the safety of the vaccine, and especially the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine which uses science not previously used in mass vaccinations. It is known as a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. Conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of the virus, but mRNAs use only the virus’s genetic code. An mRNA vaccine is injected into the body where it enters cells and tells them to create antigens. These antigens are recognised by the immune system and prepare it to fight coronavirus. The vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca was approved by the MHRA in December last year. The Oxford jab is not an mRNA vaccine. Instead, it uses a harmless weakened version of a virus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees. I decided I would read as much information as I could about the studies, especially once it became clear that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would be the first one offered. I understand that my choice is just that, my own choice, and that we are adults who face many choices daily. After reading as many articles as I could, discussing with family and colleagues I decided to get the vaccine as soon as it was available to me. It felt like we finally had the first tool in our arsenal to defeat this insidious enemy. And if I need to get a booster shot every year (like the flu shot), then I will, to protect my family, my community, and myself. I encourage everyone to do the same thing I did; research the possible side effects (not including your Facebook friends’ conspiracy theories), research the possible long-term effects of experiencing a COVID-19 infection, and determine which is the right option for you and your loved ones. Make an educated decision when the time is right, and when the vaccine is made available to you.
For me, choosing the vaccine felt like the first step back to the life we used to know. I cannot say if there will come a time in the future that we will not need to wear masks and practise social distancing; but maybe we will see fewer critically ill COVID-19 patients, or even just fewer hospitalised COVID patients overall if the vaccine becomes the popular choice.