Covid booster programme extended to over-40s following JCVI advice

16 and 17-year-olds also now being urged to come forward for second dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Monday 15 November 2021 17:51

The Covid-19 booster vaccination programme is to be extended to include healthy people aged 40 to 49 as the government seeks to better protect the UK population against a feared winter surge in cases and hospitalisations.

As the situation on the continent worsens – with many nations reimposing restrictions amid rising infections and deaths – the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised that all adults over the age of 40 should be offered a booster, six months after their second dose.

It has also said that 16 and 17-year-olds should come forward for a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, to be administered at least 12 weeks after the first.

The JCVI said the two new policies will “help extend our protection into 2022” – though prime minster Boris Johnson insisted there was still nothing in the data to suggest restrictions will be needed over Christmas, despite the “storm of infection” in Europe.

The PM said that countries with lower vaccination rates, such as those in Eastern Europe, have recorded higher surges in cases in recent weeks and been forced to response with harsher measures, “while those countries with higher vaccination rates have so far fared better.”

The situation here is comparable, however, with the latest weekly WHO data showing the UK had the second-highest total new infections in Europe after Russia.

Mr Johnsonadded: “It shows us that if we want to control the epidemic here in the UK and if we want to avoid restrictions on our daily lives we must all get vaccinated as soon as we are eligible.”

Some 12.6 million people have received a booster jab in the UK so far. Those aged over 40 will be invited to receive a third dose of either Pfizer or Moderna in the coming weeks, the government said, but only if six months have passed since their second jab was administered.

A new study from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has shown that two weeks after receiving a booster dose, protection against symptomatic infection was 93.1 per cent among those who had initially received Oxford/AstraZeneca, and 94.0 per cent for Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

While experts say vaccine effectiveness against severe outcomes, such as hospital admission, remains high for several months after completing the primary course, researchers have seen greater waning in older adults and those with underlying medical conditions compared with young, healthy adults.

However, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said the “waning signal” after two vaccine doses is also starting to show in those aged 40 to 49, adding that this is why the JCVI has “acted decisively” in extending the booster jab rollout.

People aged under 40 might also be advised to get a booster in the future, said Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of Covid-19 immunisation for the JCVI.

He told a Downing Street briefing: "We are looking very closely at the data all the time and should there be sufficient signal to warrant a third dose, so a booster dose for this age group, then certainly we will announce that and advise that accordingly."

The prime minister also suggested that Britons may soon need a booster jab to be considered "fully vaccinated" when going abroad or for self-isolation rules. He said there were plans underway to add the third dose to the NHS Covid travel pass.

“What the general lesson is from anybody who wants to travel, you can see that getting fully vaccinated with a booster is going to be something that will, on the whole, make your life easier in all kinds of ways, including on foreign travel,” he added.

In line with data from Israel, it’s expected the UK’s booster programme will help to prevent Covid-19 deaths throughout Christmas and beyond.

Among the over-60s who have received a booster jab, there has been “a tenfold reduction against all Covid infections, an 18.7-fold reduction against hospitalisations, and a 14.7-fold reduction against mortality, and that's on top of the initial course of Pfizer,” said Prof Van-Tam.

“So I believe therefore that if the booster programme is successful, and with very high uptake, we can massively reduce the worry about hospitalisation and death due to Covid at Christmas, and for the rest of this winter.”

However, Prof Van-Tam said that “everyone has a key role to play” in minimising disruption from Covid in the coming months.

“Wear face coverings in crowded places if it is practical to do so, increase indoor ventilation whenever you can, make sure you are vaccinated and, like any medicine, make sure you finish the course,” he said.

Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said there has not been any safety concerns regarding the rollout of booster jabs.

"We also welcome the recommendation for 16 to 17-year-olds to come forward and have a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine,” she added.

"We ensure all suspected reports are carefully followed up. The Expert Working Group of the Commission on Human Medicines has confirmed that reports of suspected myocarditis (heart inflammation) following Covid-19 vaccines are extremely rare and that the balance of risks and benefits overall remains favourable."

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