Top 3 COVID-19 vaccine questions – Talking to your GP, international students and virus mutations

In this video, Dr Lucas De Toca answers the top 3 questions you’ve been asking on our social accounts.


Good morning. I am Doctor Lucas De Toca, and I lead the Department of Healh’s primary care response to COVID-19. Welcome to Top Three. I'm joined by Linda, who will do Auslan interpreting for you. Thank you.

As usual we are in Ngunnawal country. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands where people may be watching from. My shout out today goes to everyone who works in the primary healthcare system; registered nurses, GPs, allied health professionals, reception staff, clerical staff, cleaning staff, everyone working across GPs, Aboriginal community controlled health services, regional practitioners and all the different elements that make up the primary care system. The primary care system has now delivered more than 800, 000 COVID-19 vaccines to their patients and is becoming the most crucial part of our vaccination effort, so thank you for all the work you do.

First question – what questions should I ask my GP if I am 50 and over but nervous about receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine?

That is becoming a very common question. The AstraZeneca vaccine remains approved for use in Australia and is recommended for those 50 years and over but a lot of people have questions about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and they may want to ask these questions to their health professional. When you get a new vaccine, it is the same as when you get a new medication and we ask questions of health professionals so we understand what we are getting and what to expect from the experience. The important thing is that any medical intervention and definitely the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine requires consent.

Consent, informed consent, confirms you have all the information you need in order to make a decision on whether you want the vaccine or not and it is a process that is undertaken with your health professional prior to initiating the vaccine process. When you give consent you give permission for something to happen and to do that you need the information that can help you make that choice, so at a vaccination appointment you may want to ask how the vaccine may affect you or may have impact on any health risks, if there are any underlying health risks that you have, or if there are any risks in general or particular for you and no one is better placed than your own health professional to answer those questions. You could ask that prior or at the time of the appointment. You can also ask questions from the person who will vaccinate you if you consent to the vaccine. Things like what will happen when you get the vaccine? Why do you need it? Hopefully by the time you get it you will have answered that. What are common side effects? What could go wrong? What will happen if I say no? Spoiler alert – if you say no, the process stops. Consent is entirely up to you and can be withdrawn at any time.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has fewer risks and greater benefits for those who are a little older and that is why the preferential recommendation for use in people 50 and over remains. People who are older have greater risk of really bad outcomes from COVID-19 and also appear to be less at risk of a rare side effect like thrombocytopenia, blood clotting disorder that has been observed with the AstraZeneca vaccine in younger people.


Is the COVID-19 vaccine free if I’m an international student?

Yes, everyone in Australia can get their vaccine for free if they’re eligible to receive it based on their population grouping. So if you’re eligible for phase 1b, either you’re 70 years or over, you’re a health care worker, you have one of the underlying medical conditions, or if you have one of the significant disabilities, you work in a critical or high risk profession, including quarantine, aged care, disability, fire people, policemen, you are eligible to receive the vaccine and it doesn't matter if you are a citisen, on a visa, a permanent resident, an international student, and it doesn't matter if you have a Medicare card or not. The vaccines are available, accessible and free for everyone in Australia. If you don't have a Medicare card, you may not be able to receive your vaccine from your generalmpractitioner because they bill Medicare in order to get paid for the vaccine effort, but you can access the vaccine without a Medicare card in any of the GP led respiratory clinics that the Commonwealth Government supports and from any of the state and territory vaccination clinics. Please go on to and you’ll be able to find more information on where to obtain your vaccine.


Finally will I need to get a new vaccine each time the virus mutates?

Yeah so, all organisms mutate. That is how evolution works. Viruses mutate faster than other complex creatures like us. So as the virus circulates, the SARS COVID-2, the virus causing COVID-19 circulates around the world, it is slowly changing and new variants are emerging. Whether current COVID-19 vaccines that we are using in Australia and internationally will be effective against those emerging variants is being actively researched. The more virus there is circulating in the world, the more uncontrolled infections we have internationally, the more chances the virus has to mutate because the virus can mutate every time it replicates, every time it reproduces so the more virus, the higher the probability of a mutation, the higher the probability of a new variant emerging. Most mutations are actually (inaudible), they’re not good for the virus and are selected out, they don't continue, but sometimes a mutation may provide an advantage to that new variant, whether making it more transmissible, more effective in achieving transmission and that is why when we talk about the variants of concern, some mutant strains that we have identified around the world. Whether those variants of concern respond to the vaccines or not are ongoing, and is an ongoing research question and part of ongoing monitoring of the disease.

It seems the current vaccines we have remain very effective to the variants of concern that are currently circulating around the world. However, there is more research and clinical trials and developments on whether new vaccines modified vaccines or booster shots may be needed into the future to make sure the vaccines remain ahead of where the virus and mutated forms of the virus are heading towards. The absolute key message, though, most important thing we can do is to keep the circulating virus as low as possible, public health measures, border restrictions, border closures that we have for our international border except for the trans-Tasman bubble as well as all the activities you have been having throughout the year, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands regularly, staying home when getting tested and remaining in isolation till you get a test result back, are all helping reducing the amount of circulating virus. Of course ultimately vaccines that prevent the virus spreading further and causing severe disease will help slow down the transmission of the virus and help prevent ongoing mutations, so it is an evolving space. Like many things in this pandemic we will keep working with the scientific community and the latest medical development to understand how potential new variants affect or don't vaccine effectiveness but ultimately getting your vaccine as soon as you can when you are eligible and making sure you maintain all the COVID Safe behaviours that you have been doing over the last 14 months is the key way to prevent this mutation.

Thank you. That is all we have for today. Thank you for watching Top Three. Thank you, Linda, and continue to stay COVIDSafe.

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