Healthy young people are unlikely to need annual Covid boosters, experts and government advisers believe.
Ministers have begun planning for the introduction of a yearly vaccination programme that targets Covid-19, but it remains unclear if this will extend to individuals who are not deemed clinically vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with weak immune systems.
Although the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is currently reviewing evidence on whether a third dose will eventually be needed for all adults, one member told The Independent that it may be unnecessary to boost fit and healthy under-40s in the years to come.
Professor Robin Shattock, an immunologist at Imperial College London, also agreed that “it’s unlikely that we will see a requirement for annual boosting” of the young “unless they have an underlying condition that puts them at greater risk”.
Following new recommendations from the JCVI, people aged 40 to 49 are now eligible to come forward for their third dose of Covid vaccine – but only if six months have passed since they received their second jab.
More than 15.3 million booster jabs have been administered in the UK to date, with 87 per cent uptake among all over-80s. More than half of all over-50s have been boosted with a third dose.
Although ministers are now pushing for the boosters to be offered to all adults this winter, the JCVI source said there was uncertainty around how the UK’s future vaccination programme will look.
“Much depends on the epidemiology of the infection in early 2022,” they said. “Whenever we ask our modellers, we are told there are too many variables. For example, how will the altered human behaviour patterns due to colder weather and Christmas affect infection rates?”
The source suggested that clinically vulnerable patients, such as the immunocompromised, could require boosters at six to 12 month intervals for the next two years, with “less vulnerable groups possibly at 12 month intervals”.
However, those aged under 40 who are fit and healthy may not need a booster jab, the JCVI member said. “Time will tell,” they added. “The main problem seems to be vaccine fatigue or complacency.”
Prof Shattock said it would be a “pragmatic and rational approach to offer the elderly and immunocompromised boosters every year.”
“It’s less clear if there are particularly vulnerable groups that might need six monthly boosters,” he said. “As we get more data we should understand the threshold of immunity required to prevent infection in high risk groups. This will allow for any further adjustment in the use of boosters.”
He said the improvements in Covid treatments should also be taken into account by decision-makers when considering whether to rollout future booster jabs for the entire population.
Two antiviral pills have recently been found to be highly effective in cutting the rates of hospitalisation and death among at-risk patients with mild to moderate infections. The drugs, if taken early enough, prevent the escalation of disease among newly-infected people.
The UK has ordered 730,000 courses of the two treatments, which are set to be made available to patients in the coming weeks.
Professor Eleanor Riley, an immunologist at the University of Edinburgh, said advancements in Covid vaccine technology could also reduce the need to offer regular booster jabs for the majority of the population.
“I think if we get to a point where we’re combining an intramuscular injection with a shot of something up your nose to give you that local response we may end up in a much better place,” she said.
“And if that Delta remains the prevalent virus and if those vaccines are tweaked to target it specifically, that will put us in an even stronger position.”
However, these types of technological breakthroughs still may not be enough to fully protect clinically vulnerable groups and those most at risk of Covid-19, Prof Riley added.
“Despite everything that we do, they are still going to be less well protected than the rest of us. And I suspect annual boosters for them are probably going to be recommended in the same way that we do flu vaccinations.”
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