Health experts have warned the government that it needs to increase efforts to ensure more young adults are vaccinated against Covid-19 – as a matter of urgency.
They fear the current low take-up of jabs among 18- to 25-year-olds could lead to a pile-up of vaccine campaigns in September, when other groups are scheduled to get booster injections and also to be inoculated against influenza. In addition, they argue that vaccines also have a crucial role to play in protecting young adults against long Covid, which is now recognised as a serious problem associated with the disease.
At present, less than 60% of young people have been given a first dose of vaccine and, because they will then have to wait for eight weeks for a second dose, newly inoculated individuals will only be ready for their second jab in September, when a booster campaign of third jabs for older people may be launched, along with the flu programme.
“The issue of vaccine take-up with young adults is a real concern. We need to get higher uptake in the 18- to 25-year-old age group to give us the high levels of immunity that we need as we move into autumn and winter,” said Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology.
“The government needs to redouble efforts to engage younger people,” he added. “And they need to do that in ways that are more likely to influence them – for example, by using social media.”
In September, the government wants 35 million flu vaccines delivered, plus second doses for under 30s, jabs for vulnerable 12- to 15-year-olds, as well as the potential booster campaign and a pledge not to leave behind any unvaccinated person who changes their mind.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Given the current take-up rate, vaccinating the under-30s is going to take us longer than hoped. If people haven’t had their first dose by now, their second will be scheduled for September.
“The slower it takes to get through those cohorts, the more clash we will have with the other vaccine tasks and there will be a larger challenge for the NHS, because the service will need to deliver five different vaccine tasks at the same time. If you add all that together, it’s a highly complex [operation].”
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation, said the booster campaign would be an important insurance policy for vulnerable people, in case their immunity began to fade. “We want to give a boost to those vulnerable groups, starting in September, because we know the older groups are much more at risk, and they had the vaccine a considerable time ago.”
The committee has given an interim recommendation for a booster campaign to allow the NHS to plan one.
Another focus for concern is the issue of antibody levels. These are known to decline months after a second jab is given but it is not yet clear if this is associated with a loss of vaccine effectiveness. Other parts of the immune system – memory B cells and T cells – could still be operating fully, maintaining effectiveness.
“For many of the vaccines that we’ve used, historically, we haven’t needed boosters, because the virus continues to circulate, and we get boosted naturally. We don’t know if that’s happening,” said Professor Eleanor Riley of Edinburgh University.
She added that it was not clear whether a booster campaign would be needed. “I’m not sure that we have enough data yet to say that we actually need to do boosters. We don’t know if we need them.
“Giving them is going to be expensive and time-consuming. But it might be better than taking the risk of not giving them.”