Millions of people in the UK will be offered further Covid booster shots in the autumn under draft guidance published by the government’s vaccine watchdog.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said another round of jabs would help protect the most vulnerable adults and frontline social care and health workers against severe Covid in the winter.
Despite “considerable uncertainty” over the likelihood, timing and severity of any future wave of Covid in the country, the committee said the threat from the virus would be greatest in the winter months.
The interim advice, released on Thursday, aims to help the NHS, care homes and other healthcare providers plan for the rollout in the months ahead. It calls for a further round of boosters to be offered to more than 25 million people in the UK. Those eligible include staff and residents in care homes for older people, frontline health and social care workers, all those aged 65 and over, and adults aged 16 to 64 who are in a clinical risk group.
“Last year’s autumn booster vaccination programme provided excellent protection against severe Covid-19, including against the Omicron variant,” said Prof Wei Shen Lim, the chair of Covid-19 vaccination on the JCVI.
“We have provided interim advice on an autumn booster programme for 2022 so that the NHS and care homes are able to start the necessary operational planning to enable high levels of protection for more vulnerable individuals and frontline healthcare staff over next winter.”
Prof Jonathan Ball, a molecular virologist at the University of Nottingham, welcomed the move. “We know that immunity to Covid-19 following vaccination, or indeed infection, contracts over time, so giving those individuals most at risk from developing severe Covid-19 a boost just before virus circulation is likely to pick up during autumn and winter months seems sensible,” he said. “The exact timing will be important, as you don’t want to wait until virus circulation has already started to increase, although hopefully those most at risk have already had their spring booster, which will be standing them in good stead.”
Since April, Covid-related hospital admissions and deaths have fallen steadily in the UK, but the same trend was seen in the first two years of the pandemic, before new variants fuelled further waves of infection. The Office for National Statistics estimated that 99% of the UK population had antibodies against Covid but it is unclear what level of antibodies prevents infection. Immunity also wanes over time, and it is unclear how protected people will be as new variants arise.
Throughout the pandemic, older people and those with underlying health conditions have been hit hardest by the virus, prompting the JCVI to prioritise them for vaccination. The committee urged those eligible for a spring booster to come forward, including those aged 75 and over, residents in a care home for older adults, and people aged 12 years and over who are immunosuppressed.
The autumn round of boosters, aimed at more than a third of the population, is expected to draw on the existing Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used in the spring booster campaign, but the JCVI said it would consider other options before issuing final guidance in due course. “As we continue to review the scientific data, further updates to this advice will follow,” Lim said.