UK body recommends COVID booster campaign in autumn

London, January 26, 2020. People wearing a face masks to protecting themself because of epidemic in China. Selective Focus. Concept of coronavirus quarantine. MERS-Cov, middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV.

The UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that the NHS should start a COVID-19 booster shot programme in September, to run alongside the annual flu vaccine drive. 

The programme should run in two stages, initially targeting elderly and vulnerable people and frontline health and social care workers like the initial vaccination push, and then be expanded to include all adults aged 50 and over, plus younger, at-risk people who qualify for a flu shot.

While not yet formally adopted by the government, the proposals would mean that millions of people – perhaps as many as 30 million – could be in line for a third dose in the autumn.

The recommendation comes as the UK is anticipating a more severe flu season than usual, which could place added pressure on the NHS if protection against COVID-19 afforded by the initial two-dose vaccinations starts to wane.

There's no evidence that will happen, and just this week AstraZeneca reported results suggesting that a single shot of its Vaxzevria vaccine induced immunity for at least one year. The JCVI's recommendation is a precaution while the UK waits for the results of its large-scale COV-BOOST trial in September.

A large-scale booster rollout will help to ensure that the protection already built up in the population does not decline through the winter months, and that additional protection is layered in to guard against any problem variants of SARS-CoV-2 that may emerge.

No decisions have yet been made on which vaccines will be used, but the COV-BOOST should provide important data on that front as it is including seven types – from AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Novavax, Valneva, CureVac and Janssen.

With the UK now heading for a possible ending of social restrictions on 19 July, the country "is now heavily dependent on the continued success of the vaccination programme," said England's deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam.

"We want to be on the front foot for COVID-19 booster vaccination to keep the probability of loss of vaccine protection, due to waning immunity or variants, as low as possible – especially over the coming autumn and winter," he added.

The latest estimates from Public Health England (PHE) suggest that vaccines deployed so far have already had an impact on hospitalisation rates, and prevented an estimated 7.2 million infections and 27,000 deaths in England alone.

Wales and Scotland's devolved health administrations are also working on delivering booster shot campaigns in the autumn, according to a BBC report.