In an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, myself, Professor Marisa Papaluca and Dr Mariam Molokhia discuss how health systems can assess the long-term safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccines for COVID-19 were eagerly awaited, and their rapid development, testing, approval and implementation are a tremendous achievement by all: scientists, pharmaceutical companies, drugs regulators, politicians and healthcare professionals; and by the patients who have received them.
Because these vaccines are new, we lack long-term data on their safety and efficacy. In surveys of people who define themselves as ‘vaccine hesitant’, this lack of long-term data is one of the main reasons given for their beliefs. Hence, providing this information is a public health priority and could help reassure vaccine-hesitant people that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is the right choice for them. Emerging data from the UK and elsewhere are confirming the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines and this is one of the factors that is leading to a reduction in vaccine hesitancy in the UK population.
As long-term data on the safety and efficacy build globally, these can address many of the concerns that vaccine-hesitant people have about COVID-19 vaccines, thereby creating a positive environment that encourages higher uptake of vaccination. These data will also guide national public health policies, such as how frequently to provide booster doses of vaccine and whether limits should be placed on the use of a specific vaccine.
Vaccination remains the best way to control the COVID-19 pandemic, and countries globally should work together to generate the information needed to provide long-term data on safety and outcomes. Because of the very rare nature of some side effects, this will require international collaboration so that data from countries can be pooled to allow more precise estimates of risk to be calculated. This will include using data from low- and middle-income countries once vaccination programmes are established there, as well as from marginalised groups in higher-income countries, to ensure that the data are fully representative of the global population.