UK accelerates COVID booster plans in response to Omicron

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The UK looks set to extend its COVID-19 booster vaccination programme to all over-18s, as the number of cases of the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 has reached double figures.

The gap between second doses and boosters is also being reduced from six to three months in an attempt to get as much protection in the population as possible ahead of the winter holiday season, in an attempt to get ahead of a potential Omicron wave.

There were 11 cases reported in the UK at the time of writing, five in England and six in Scotland, and that number is expected to rise in the coming days.

In other moves, the latest recommendations from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation(JCVI) include a fourth dose for severely immunocompromised people, and a second dose for children aged 12 to 15 three months after their first.

The boosters will be offered in order of descending age groups, with priority given to the vaccination of older adults and those in a COVID-19 at-risk group. A decision on whether to vaccinate younger children is likely to be made before Christmas.

"Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant," said JCVI COVID-19 immunisation chair Prof Wei Shen Lim.

"This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months," he added. "With any vaccine during a pandemic, we get the greatest benefit both for individuals and society if the vaccine is deployed before the wave starts."

The JCVI has delivered its recomendations to the four UK nations, but it will be up to their respective governments to act on them.

It also said the UK's booster advice will be reviewed as further evidence comes in on the Omicron variant, amid fears that the new strain may be able to evade the protection conferred by currently-used shots.

Booster should be carried out with Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines as these provide a higher immune-boosting effect, but the AstraZeneca shot should also be used if these are not available or suitable.

Speaking at the press conference on the expansion of the booster vaccine programme, England's deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam stressed that while Omicron is a concern, there is still much that is not known about its transmissibility and likelihood to cause severe disease.

"It has always been the case that, at some point, we are going to get a variant that gives us heightened concern," he said.

Based on data from South Africa, Omicron appears to have an "elevated growth rate," but that does not mean it is necessarily more transmissible, he added. "There are far more things we don't know yet than things we do," said Van Tam.

The JCVI also said that greater efforts should be undertaken to encourage  the unvaccinated to receive doses.

In the first nine months of the year there were almost 41,000 deaths among unvaccinated people in England, compared to around 4,300 in people who had two doses, according to Office of National Statistics (ONS) data.