U.K. to Begin Covid Booster Drive for Over-50s Next Week
The U.K. will offer Covid-19 booster shots to people 50 and over and other vulnerable groups, as the government aims to avert a potential coronavirus surge this winter.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Tuesday the government had accepted the advice of its vaccine committee and would go ahead with administering doses from next week. Under the plan for tackling Covid over the coming months in England, Javid said there will be a “plan A” focusing on booster vaccinations, flu shots and the test and trace system.
But he warned the government is also holding contingency measures in reserve if the National Health Service risks being overwhelmed by cases. They include mandatory vaccine certification in certain venues, legally mandating face coverings in some settings and asking people to work from home if they can.
Javid was speaking after the vaccine committee recommended ministers go ahead with a booster vaccine program. An extra dose of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine is the preferred option, regardless of which brand a person received previously, the committee said. It should be given no earlier than six months after the second shot.
A half dose of the Moderna Inc. shot may be offered as an alternative, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said. In cases where people can’t have a messenger RNA vaccine because of allergies or other reasons, the AstraZeneca Plc shot may be considered for those who received it originally.
The U.K.’s plans are being closely watched globally. Knowing that people can safely receive a third shot that’s based on a different technology could give countries more flexibility in their efforts to widen vaccination coverage. At the same time, Britain’s move is likely to fuel the debate over boosters.
Some countries are moving ahead with extra doses amid an increased threat from the delta variant and studies suggesting waning antibody levels in vaccinated individuals. Yet World Health Organization officials have urged governments to wait at least until the end of the year so that poorer countries get better access to vaccines, adding that the scientific evidence is insufficient.
The government estimates nine countries have already announced booster campaigns, with potentially 18 others considering such a step, Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said in a televised press conference. The country understands the need to expand vaccine coverage globally, he said.
“We get that,” he said. “By the same token, the job given to us is to define what is best for the U.K.”
A review published this week by a panel of scientists from around the world concluded that governments should focus on immunizing the unvaccinated and wait for more data on which boosters would be most effective and at what doses. Vaccination has shown an average of 95% effectiveness against severe disease, including against variants such as delta, and more than 80% effectiveness at preventing any infection, according to the report in the medical journal The Lancet.
In the U.K., the NHS has been preparing for booster shots since July, but ministers waited for the final advice from the committee before giving the program the green light. Cases remain relatively high in the country, but Johnson is keen to enter a new chapter in the pandemic, moving away from the threat of lockdowns and mandatory vaccine passports toward more individual choices and freedoms.
The shots should be given to people more at risk from serious disease, including those living in residential care homes, frontline health workers, and younger people with underlying health conditions, the panel said.
“This pandemic is still active,” Van-Tam said. “We know this winter could quite possibly be bumpy at times.”
The U.S., meanwhile, plans to roll out booster shots as soon as Sept. 20, though the proposal still needs sign-off from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Joe Biden’s advisers said last month that the data supported the need for boosters and that they would begin preparing for them.
Israel, Germany and France are among other countries that have started or plan to offer additional shots to vulnerable groups.
The U.K.’s medical regulator cleared the way for boosters last week, saying that the Pfizer and Astra vaccines can be used as safe and effective doses. Europe, meanwhile, is stepping closer to booster shots as regulators review data on third jabs from Pfizer and Moderna.
Britain announced announced in May that the Cov-Boost study would provide vital data on the impact of a third dose on patients’ immune responses, testing seven vaccines as potential boosters.
The plans follow a decision by the U.K. to offer vaccines to all children as young as 12 starting next week in a bid to reduce disruption in schools. The country’s chief medical officers recommended giving a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and called on the immunization committee to weigh in on whether and how to give second doses once more data are available.
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