With the success and speed of the Government’s vaccine booster programme, it’s easy to think that this is the future now; that going forward, the nation will be jabbed at monthly intervals, so as to keep Coronavirus under control.
However, over the last week, Professor Pollard, Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation, as well as Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, cast doubt on this plan. In a newspaper interview, he warned that vaccinating the planet every six months was not affordable or sustainable, and that there still isn’t “full certainty” on the benefits of a fourth booster, even though Israel has gone ahead with it for members of the population aged over 60.
What does this mean for the Government’s strategy going forward? Although Pollard doesn’t make any decisions on its policies – due to his involvement making vaccines – he’s still one of the most important advisers in the country, and his words offer clues about what ministers’ next moves and thinking may be.
For one, Pollard suggested that it’s “not unreasonable” to think a future Covid vaccine scheme could be like the flu programme, albeit the latter has a more seasonal pattern. The comparison between the two diseases has been made before, but it’s become much easier to argue for in recent times, due to the Omicron variant – symbolising that we may have milder variants to come – and immunity building in the population, either naturally or through the vaccine. It would mean that far from giving everyone multiple vaccines, we become more selective, with only the vulnerable contacted and inoculated.
Pollard also said that we need to vaccinate the whole planet “not just our little corner of it”. This is not the first time he has offered such a warning. In July, writing for The Times, he urged the public to think of its “responsibility to humanity”, flagging the fact that without even, widespread distribution, new variants can emerge. He concluded by saying “It is difficult to justify getting third doses ourselves, especially if not clearly needed, ahead of zero-dose people whose lives remain at risk.”
This argument has been one that hasn’t gained much traction over the last few years. Although the UK takes part in the COVAX scheme, which has provided huge numbers of vaccines (100 million doses by June 2022), there hasn’t been palpable public support for letting other nations “catch up” before moving onto boosters.
One imagines attitudes might have changed here, however, though. Gordon Brown recently became one of the most vocal supporters of better worldwide distribution, calling the current situation a “stain on our soul”, and, in general, there’s more awareness that current jabs could be rendered ineffective if variants grow elsewhere. In 2022, we can expect an even greater drive from governments and the World Health Organization, to get the world jabbed.
Overall, even though Pollard’s words appeared to surprise many – sparking a lot of dramatic headlines – there was quite a positive message underneath them, with him saying that the worst of the pandemic is “behind us”.
Given that more than 90 per cent of over 12s having had their first vaccine in Britain, and 80 per cent having had two doses of it, we have every reason to be hopeful moving forward. In an encouraging sign that we can expect less lockdowns, Pollard said that society has to open up at some point – and that there’s no point in trying to stop all infections.
Sometimes it’s hard to forget, too, that there are plenty of unknown variables that will shape our future battle(s) with Covid, just as the vaccine was a game changer. Scientists continue to work on even better inoculations, so that they’re better tailored to new variants.
Moreover, they are being developed into different forms, which, in turn, should make them easier to distribute around the world. One company, for instance, is developing a dry-powder formulation of a Covid vaccine for a single-user inhaler; another, a pill, targets mucosal cells in the intestine; and researchers in Lancaster are looking into nasal spray, and that’s just the start of it.
All in all, while it’s could be taken as a bad sign that boosters aren’t “sustainable”, Pollard’s interview indicates a “new normal” to which we can all aspire.