Covid booster jabs will begin to be offered across the UK from next week.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, stated that he had accepted the JCVI’s recommendation that approximately 30 million people be offered a third dose; Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all followed suit.
The booster should be administered at least six months after the second dose, with the Pfizer jab being recommended.
Over-50s, younger adults with health conditions, and frontline health and care workers are all eligible.
Mr Javid made the announcement in the Commons as part of an autumn and winter plan for managing Covid in England.
Scotland will begin offering booster jabs for the broader group from Monday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
She said the programme “was intended to prolong the protection” of vaccines and will run alongside the flu vaccination programme.
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The JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) recommendation comes amid concerns about waning immunity.
There are some indications that the vaccine’s protection may begin to wane several months after the second dose, with the most vulnerable groups being the most vulnerable.
Mr Javid told MPs in his statement, “There is evidence that the protection offered by Covid-19 vaccines diminishes over time, particularly in older people who are more vulnerable, so booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control in the long term.”
The JCVI stated that it was still unclear how much protection was slipping, but that it wanted to take a precautionary approach and ensure that the most vulnerable people received adequate protection.
The advice is separate to the recent recommendation of third doses for people with severely weakened immune systems – something that is already being rolled out.
Those eligible for a booster jab include:
- Those living in residential care homes for older adults
- All adults aged 50 years or over
- Frontline health and social care workers
- All those aged 16 to 49 years with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe COVID-19
- Adult household contacts of immunosuppressed individuals
A plan amid huge uncertainty
There is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen this winter. In fact, it’s unclear what the coming month will bring.
It was feared that Covid cases would increase in September, but there are no signs of this happening.
Given the amount of immunity that has been built up in the population, large increases in infection levels are most likely behind us.
However, if current levels are maintained throughout the winter, the NHS will be in trouble. And even a minor decrease in vaccine effectiveness could have a significant impact on admissions, hence the booster announcement.
Then there’s the worry about other respiratory viruses resurfacing. They were kept at bay by lockdowns and social distancing last year, but immunity to them has waned as a result.
RSV, the leading cause of respiratory illness in young children, is already circulating at extremely high levels. The flu could also spread.
It is for this reason that the NHS must plan for the worst while hoping for the best.
Booster jab trials have been conducted in the United Kingdom.
The JCVI stated that these results demonstrated that Pfizer was well-tolerated and elicited a good immune response, including against new virus variants such as Delta, regardless of which Covid vaccine was used for the first two doses.
It stated that if Pfizer was not available, a half-dose of Moderna could be used instead.
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The AstraZeneca vaccine can be used as a booster for people who are unable to receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines due to issues such as allergies.
A six-month interval between the second dose and the booster shot was thought to be the most effective for increasing protection.
The trials also demonstrated that the flu vaccine can be given at the same time as the booster jab where possible – some people will be offered a flu jab before becoming eligible for a Covid booster.
‘Bumpy winter’ predicted
“The UK’s Covid vaccination programme has been hugely successful in protecting people against hospitalisation and death,” said JCVI chair Prof Wei Shen Lim, “and the main aim of the booster programme is to prolong that protection and reduce serious disease as we approach the colder months.”
Given the size of the population, he believes that even minor improvements in vaccine effectiveness could have a significant impact on hospital admission numbers.
He stated that those under the age of 50 are more likely to have a longer-lasting immune response to the first two doses of vaccine and may not require a booster – though he did not completely rule it out.
Prof Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, predicted a “bumpy winter” with Covid, as well as other respiratory viruses such as flu, which had previously been kept at very low levels due to lockdowns and social distancing.
The booster programme, he said, was about “staying on top of Covid” and could have a “very significant impact” on hospitalizations and deaths.
In recent weeks, approximately 85 percent of deaths have occurred among people over the age of 60.
Prof Van Tam, however, added that it was also critical that those who had not yet received their first dose of the vaccine did so. More than 5 million adults have yet to receive their first dose.
‘Trying to avoid restrictions’
The announcement follows the government’s announcement on Monday that all children aged 12 to 15 in England will be offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, with invitations being sent out beginning next week.
It is in accordance with the advice of the UK’s chief medical officers, who state that the vaccine will help reduce disruption to education.
A rollout in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has yet to be confirmed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement before the announcement on the booster programme that while the pandemic is “far from over,” the “phenomenal vaccine programme, new treatments, and testing” mean the UK is “able to live with the virus without significant restrictions on our freedoms.”
The Prime Minister, who will hold a coronavirus press conference later, stated that he will lay out a strategy for the coming months “when the virus has a natural advantage, to protect the gains we have made.”