UK’s autumn Covid booster campaign could exclude most Britons

Most Britons are expected to be denied autumn coronavirus boosters after the UK government’s vaccine advisory group recommended that only elderly people and at-risk groups should have the jabs.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended as part of provisional advice, which was published on Thursday, that only care home residents, the over-65s, frontline health and social care workers and vulnerable younger people should be eligible for the next round of vaccines.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, the JCVI’s Covid-19 chair, said the advice enabled the health service and care homes “to start the necessary operational planning to enable high levels of protection for more vulnerable individuals and frontline healthcare staff over next winter”.

Lim stressed that evidence had shown Covid-19 “disproportionately affected” the groups eligible for the booster. He said the JCVI would “continue its ongoing review” of the vaccination campaign, “particularly in relation to the timing and value of doses for less vulnerable older adults and those in clinical risk groups”. The at-risk younger groups would be defined at a later date, he added.

A senior health official told the Financial Times that the JCVI’s advice offered a “template for future autumn rollouts” of Covid-19 vaccine programmes. It had similarities to the winter flu vaccination campaign, which only targets certain age groups and healthcare workers, the person added.

UK health secretary Sajid Javid welcomed the provisional guidance and said he would consider the JCVI’s final recommendations later this year. He added that he had asked NHS England “to begin preparations to ensure they are ready to deploy Covid vaccines to those eligible”.

Most Britons under the age of 65 years old will be excluded from the autumn vaccination campaign if the guidance remains in place. Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said the advice was “better than nothing”, but he questioned why the rollout was not being extended to younger groups.

“Why aren’t we thinking about more comprehensive programmes if we’re serious about trying to move on?” he asked. “Triple-vaccinated healthy people are barely keeping going between reinfections from Omicron, with its oncoming sub-variants [that are] somewhat more transmissible and immune evasive . . . this doesn’t look sustainable.”

The UK ran a second booster campaign earlier this year that was limited to over-75s, care home residents, frontline health workers and people with compromised immune systems. In contrast, the US medicines regulator approved a second booster for all people aged 50 and over. The UK is the only country to have announced plans for an autumn booster.

The UK government has orders with BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna for nearly 150mn doses, which will be delivered during 2022 and 2023, including access to modified jabs targeted at Omicron or future variants of concern.

Clinical trials for Omicron-tailored vaccines are yet to be completed and therefore the JCVI is yet to offer guidance on which jab should be used. Pfizer and Moderna are expected to fulfil orders for around 500mn doses of Omicron-targeted vaccines globally this year if they gain regulatory approval, according to estimates from vaccine tracker Airfinity.

JCVI member Professor Jeremy Brown predicted that healthy younger people would “not get the vaccine again”, but he cautioned that because the “epidemiology of the disease going forward [was] highly uncertain” the groups eligible for boosters could change.

The latest UK wave of coronavirus has fallen away dramatically in recent weeks. There are currently 6,879 Covid-19 patients in hospitals across the UK, the lowest level since early October last year, according to official data.

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