A plan to start offering coronavirus booster vaccinations in the UK from early September is extremely unlikely to happen say JCVI sources
A plan to start offering coronavirus booster vaccinations in the UK from early September is extremely unlikely to happen, members of the government’s vaccines watchdog believe, given concerns over both the clinical benefits, as well as the potential wider risks to vaccine confidence.
No formal date has been set for booster vaccinations as clinical trials continue, but the Department of Health and Social Care, as well as the NHS have talked about it starting early next month following results from a series of clinical trials that is due this month.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers, met on Thursday morning, however, and is expected to tell them that significantly more work is needed before booster jabs can be rolled out.
This would cover not only who may gain a net clinical benefit from another vaccination, but also complex and broader issues about whether the plan is even necessary at all and concerns about excessive focus on Covid jabs hampering public confidence in vaccination more generally.
This comes after the UK health regulator has approved the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 17-year-olds. It is now up to the JCVI to advise the UK government on whether or not children within this age group should be given the Moderna vaccination.
“The jury is still very much out on what happens,” one JCVI source said. “One of the consistent things we have found is that when we undertake clinical trials, the results can be surprising.”
One study that was presented to the JCVI on Thursday from researchers at Oxford University indicated that if people were given a “mix and match” combination of vaccines for their first and second jabs, the side-effects could be worse, with potential implications for the idea of using a different jab for a booster than someone’s initial vaccine.
Among other matters yet to be decided is who would benefit from a booster injection. The focus is primarily on people who have suppressed immune systems, but even within this group there are many issues to be considered.
Another JCVI source said a particular worry was the potential impact of pushing third vaccinations on a public within which the take-up of other vaccinations, for example for children and teenagers, had “dropped off a cliff” since the start of the pandemic.
“The confidence in the Covid vaccines has been fantastic, but confidence is very fragile and we don’t want to harm it,” they said. “There is evidence that if someone has a reaction to a vaccine it can put them off having all vaccinations in the future.
“The most important message right now is to stress that anyone who has not had their first or second vaccination should do so.”
While the sources said all this put an early September start to the programme in significant doubt, one official said other JCVI members still believed this timescale was possible, and that the programme could go beyond just those who were clinically vulnerable.
Other issues discussed at the meeting include the regulatory, legal, and logistical hurdles of a third vaccination, which are different from those for the first two.
This comes after New Zealand will go into a national lockdown for three days from Wednesday after the country has recorded its first coronavirus case in six months. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said that the nation would be put under strict lockdown after one case of COVID-19 was reported in Auckland.
It is understood some JCVI members are also concerned about the UK using large numbers of vaccine doses for booster injections of limited clinical value when they could be sent overseas, but the consideration is not part of the committee’s remit.
The first source said that as far as the JCVI was concerned, any planning for booster jabs had only been in case it was deemed necessary, and did not mean it would happen. “This is going to take more time and research.
What we don’t want to do is make promises which then disappoint people,” they said.
A government spokesperson said: “We are preparing for a booster programme to ensure those most vulnerable to Covid-19 have protection extended ahead of winter and against new variants.
“Any booster programme will be based on the final advice of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Until we receive the independent JCVI advice no decisions can be made on wider requirements for those who receive booster jabs.”