With recess and the summer holidays, it seems that we have reached a relative moment of calm in the battle against the Coronavirus. The vaccine roll out has gone out well, and the Government will be pleased to see cases have dropped in England. It gives more weight to Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid’s hawkishness in lifting restrictions in July, of which the latter said: “there’s no going back”.
However, an announcement by the Health Secretary also shows that ministers have been quietly concerned about one issue: how long vaccine immunity lasts. He tweeted that “people with severely weakened immune systems” will now be offered a third Covid-19 vaccine, following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
I’ve accepted advice from the JCVI to offer people with severely weakened immune systems a 3rd COVID-19 vaccine as part of their primary schedule to top up their protection. https://t.co/Eqp6dY0Oeu
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) September 1, 2021
In some regards, this announcement is not a major surprise; Javid has previously said that a vaccine booster scheme is likely to take place in September, with the NHS asked to make preparations.
But it’s also a reminder that we are not out of the woods yet, and gives an indication of the type of challenges the Government will face over the next few months, particularly as it tries to protect the NHS from a “Twindemic” (of flu and Covid).
The reason why booster jabs have become of huge importance is because of what’s happening in Israel. While it was the world leader in getting out jabs – and a huge cause for celebration – it has since seen infections rise rapidly, which has led to hospitalisations going up (the metric that UK ministers are most concerned about, lest the NHS becomes overwhelmed).
Already there is growing pressure on the Government to get a booster programme sorted. Data from the ZOE COVID study supports the findings in Israel; it showed that “initial protection against infection a month after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine was 88 per cent, while after five to six months this fell to 74 per cent.”
For AstraZeneca “there was around 77 per cent protection a month after the second dose, falling to 67 per cent after four to five months.”
And the authors highlight that “We urgently need to make plans for vaccine boosters, and based on vaccine resources, decide if a strategy to vaccinate children is sensible”.
With Javid confirming initial boosters, the question moves onto who else will get them. The JCVI has still not provided advice here (other than recommending the clinically vulnerable), as it’s no easy task to work out the categories and timings.
But Dr Raghib Ali, Clinical Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, tells me that: “I’d be surprised if they don’t do boosters and flu vaccines at the same time for all over 50s; that’s my expectation.”
Jeremy Hunt has gone one step further and said that the UK should offer its additional jabs “not just to the clinically vulnerable, but to everyone”. In Israel, all over-30s are being encouraged to get booster doses, and it seems to be having an impact in bringing down cases.
Clearly there will be many debates, regardless of JCVI’s decisions, as to who should be eligible. Tony Blair, for instance, once called for teachers to be bumped up the vaccine queue – so will there be demands they get prioritised for boosters?
And there will also be ethical discussions about whether more developed nations should be having third vaccines – when others are completely uncovered. The World Health Organisation has warned against this.
So while Javid said “there’s no going back”, we will see the same arguments come up again that featured in the first vaccine roll out – only with “Get the Booster> Save Lives” as the Government’s new mindset.