UK poised to announce booster COVID jabs for over-50s

The UK government is due to announce a large-scale booster vaccine campaign against COVID-19 for all adults aged 50 and over later today, adding to its plan for third doses for people with weakened immune systems.

The plan will see millions of doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine administered across the autumn and winter to the over-50s, regardless of what vaccine they received for the primary course, six months after the second dose. A third dose of the shot was approved by the MHRA last week.

It is understood that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has indicated that the six-month timepoint is when protection from COVID-19 complications may start to wane, and that the third doses will be co-administered with flu shots where possible.

The number of deaths and hospitalisations in England has remained relatively stable over the last month, despite fears of a spike after the lifting of lockdown restrictions, but the aim is to pre-empt any pressure on the NHS over the winter months, according to the government.

Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC Today programme this morning that the campaign, which comes shortly after the government was advised to offer a single dose of the shot to 12- to 15-year-olds, is the next stage in shifting COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic status.

The full details will be released by prime minister Boris Johnson at a press conference later today, which the government said would “set out a renewed focus on vaccines as the first line of defence, supported by testing, public health advice, and a … variant surveillance system”.

The decision to go ahead with a widespread booster campaign will likely come in for criticism, as some experts have suggested in the last few weeks that a targeted campaign directed at the vulnerable is adequate to keep the pandemic under control.

There would be more to gain from exporting surplus doses to countries in greater need, according to Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University, who led the development of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 jab.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot and head of biopharma R&D Mene Pangalos have also said that the campaign should be delayed to until data emerges in the next few weeks on whether two doses can confer continued, protective immunity.

Resistance to US booster plans

The UK plan comes as the US is planning to start a widespread booster campaign next week, jumping the gun on an advisory committee meeting looking at a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot that is scheduled to take place on Friday.

An open letter published in The Lancet – authored by two departing FDA officials as well as experts from the WHO and other specialists – has argued that the data on third doses under review by the adcomm is “preliminary” and “difficult to interpret”.

“Current evidence does not … appear to show a need for boosting in the general population, in which efficacy against severe disease remains high”, they say, adding that the side effects linked to vaccines – while rare – demand caution.

“If unnecessary boosting causes significant adverse reactions, there could be implications for vaccine acceptance that go beyond COVID-19 vaccines,” they said.

The authors include two of the FDA’s senior vaccine staff – Dr Marion Gruber and Dr Philip Krause – who will be stepping down in the autumn, reportedly in protest at the US government’s booster plans.

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