The government has laid out plans for the Covid booster jabs for over 50s in a press conference, soon after government scientists finally approved the vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.
The booster will be a single dose – preferably the Pfizer vaccine – no longer than six months after a second dose. It will be offered to about 30 million people in the UK, experts have recommended.
The booster will be offered to anyone over the age of 50, healthcare workers and other individuals with underlying health conditions which put them at risk of serious illness if they catch Covid.
Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr June Raine, from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and Prof Wei Shen Lim from the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation (JCVI) ironed out the details in a Covid briefing.
Professor Lim said: “The UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has been hugely successful in protecting people against hospitalisation and death, and the main aim of the booster programme is to prolong that protection and reduce serious disease as we head towards the colder months.
“The JCVI is advising that a booster dose be offered to the more vulnerable, to maximise individual protection ahead of an unpredictable winter. Most of these people will also be eligible for the annual flu vaccine and we strongly advise them to take up this offer as well.”
Here’s everything you need to know about the booster jabs.
Why do you need booster jabs?
With social restrictions relaxed, booster jabs are designed to protect us during the winter when Covid could circulate through the population alongside other illnesses such as the flu.
“The timing and magnitude of potential influenza and SARS-CoV2 (Covid-19) infection waves for winter 2021 to 2022 are currently unknown,” the JCVI said of uncertainty over how virulent the virus may be later in the year.
We already know people require two doses of the Covid vaccine for the best level of protection. That protection remains strong for a minimum of three months up to six months (for the Pfizer jab in particular), but it’s seemed increasingly likely a booster will be needed for at least the most vulnerable.
Sajid Javid previously said of boosters: “We need to learn to live with this virus. Our first Covid-19 vaccination programme is restoring freedom in this country, and our booster programme will protect this freedom.”
Have booster jabs been tested?
The Cov-Boost study, led by University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, was backed by £19.3m of government funding. Thousands of volunteers received a Covid vaccine booster over the summer in a trial that tested seven different vaccines for the impact of a third dose on immune responses.
Is was this research which informed the JCVI’s guidance on booster jabs and the autumn booster programme.
Which vaccines will be used?
The JCVI advises a preference for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the booster programme, regardless of which vaccine brand someone received for their first and second doses. This follows data from the Cov-Boost trial that indicates the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is well tolerated as a third dose and provides a strong booster response.
Alternatively, the Moderna vaccine may be offered, but as a half-dose booster shot after studies showed it was effective with few side-effects.
Where either of these two mRNA vaccines cannot be offered, for example due to allergies, the AstraZeneca vaccine may be considered for those who received it previously.
Who will get their booster jabs first?
The JCVI’s interim plan suggested the booster programme would be rolled out in two stages, first to all adults aged 70 and over, care home residents, the immunocompromised, and frontline health and social care workers; and then to adults aged 50 and over, and those aged 16 to 49 years who are in an influenza or Covid-19 at-risk group (ie. those prioritised for the flu jab in a regular year).
On Tuesday, however, it was announced that booster vaccines will be offered to all people aged 50 and over, those in care homes and frontline health and social care workers – equating to some 30 million people.
All those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and anyone aged 16 to 65 in an at-risk group group for Covid (who were in priority groups one to nine during the initial vaccine rollout) will also be eligible for a jab.
The JCVI had already approved offering a third vaccination to 500,000 people over the age of 12 who are immunocompromised, separate to the booster programme. Research suggests that the immunosuppressed could benefit from a third dose of the Covid vaccine to protect them from breakthrough infections.
Plans for vaccinating other groups such as healthy adults under 50 have not been laid out yet, the JCVI said.
When will we get our booster jabs?
People vaccinated early during Phase 1 will have received their second dose approximately six months ago. The JCVI said it would be appropriate for the booster vaccine programme to begin in September 2021, as soon as operationally practical.
Early data in older individuals from Public Health England (PHE) suggested that the protection provided by vaccines against severe Covid decreases gradually over time.
Insufficient time has passed to know what levels of protection might be expected six to 12 months after the primary course of vaccinations ie. your first and second dose, the JCVI said. Taking a precautionary position, the JCVI considers that on balance it is preferable to maintain a high level of protection in vulnerable adults throughout winter.
How do I book my Covid booster jab?
Those eligible for the booster jab will be invited to take the vaccine in the priority order set out by the JCVI. Like the flu jab, you’ll be able to get the booster at your pharmacy or your GP.
As most younger adults will only have received their second vaccine dose by late summer or early autumn, the benefits of booster vaccination in this group will be considered at a later time.
The JCVI will continue to review emerging scientific data, including data relating to the duration of immunity for those less vulnerable to severe outcomes from Covid-19.
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