The Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca Covid vaccines have been approved by the UK vaccine watchdog for use as booster jabs this autumn.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) met on Thursday to review initial data from the Cov-Boost study of booster jabs, which has been looking at seven different vaccines and their potential as a third “booster’ dose after the two standard doses of either vaccine.
The JCVI was shown data that suggested a top-up Pfizer-BioNTech dose months after a second jab could greatly boost the body’s immune response to coronavirus in people who had been fully vaccinated with either Pfizer or AstraZeneca jabs, suggesting a mix-and-match booster campaign could work.
The committee is now expected to formally approve a booster campaign as soon as next week, including details of who should be prioritised for a third jab.
Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday, Javid said he was “very confident” there will be a booster programme “this month”, pending guidance from the JCVI.
“In terms of who actually gets it and when, we’re waiting for final advice which could come across, certainly, in the next few days from the JCVI,” Javid said.
More than 80% of UK adults are now double vaccinated, and Javid has stressed the success of the programme so far in the fight against Covid-19.
Here’s what you need to know about his autumn plans for booster jabs.
Why might we need booster jabs?
With social restrictions relaxed, booster jabs are designed to protect us during the winter when Covid could circulate through the population alongside other illnesses such as the flu.
“The timing and magnitude of potential influenza and SARS-CoV2 (Covid-19) infection waves for winter 2021 to 2022 are currently unknown,” the JCVI said of uncertainty over how virulent the virus may be later in the year.
We already know people require two doses of the Covid vaccine for the best level of protection. That protection remains strong for a minimum of three months up to six months (for the Pfizer jab in particular), but it’s seemed increasingly likely a booster will be needed for at least the most vulnerable.
Sajid Javid previously said of boosters: “We need to learn to live with this virus. Our first Covid-19 vaccination programme is restoring freedom in this country, and our booster programme will protect this freedom.”
On Wednesday, the health secretary told Sky News the JCVI’s advice is expected to include information on whether people should get different vaccines to the ones they have already had or the same ones.
Have booster jabs been tested?
The Cov-Boost study, led by University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, was backed by £19.3m of government funding. Thousands of volunteers received a Covid vaccine booster over the summer in a trial that tested seven different vaccines for the impact of a third dose on immune responses.
When are we likely to get a booster?
The JCVI has already approved offering a third vaccination to 500,000 people over the age of 12 who are immunocompromised through such conditions as leukaemia, advanced HIV or recent organ transplants, but this was presented as as separate to any wider booster programme.
Experts are divided on the efficacy of a general booster, but if approved, the booster rollout is slated to begin straightaway, running from September to December. According to the JCVI’s interim plan, it will be in two stages.
Those who will be offered the jab in stage one are:
adults aged 16 and over who are immunosuppressed
care home residents
all adults aged 70 or over
adults aged 16 and over who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable
frontline health and social care workers.
Stage two will focus on:
all adults aged 50 and over
all adults aged 16 to 49 years who are in an influenza or Covid-19 at-risk group
adult household contacts of immunosuppressed individuals
Plans for vaccinating other groups such as healthy adults under 50 have not been laid out yet, the JCVI said.
How will you get your booster jab?
If the booster jab is rolled out from September, the plan is for it to be done alongside the regular flu jab that the public are used to receiving.
Those eligible for the booster jab will be invited to take the vaccine in the priority order set out by the JCVI. Like the flu jab, you’ll be able to get the booster at your pharmacy or your GP.
Is there any disagreement over boosters?
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine Group has suggested that rather than a vaccine booster programme, vaccine stockpiles might be better used in countries where vulnerable people are yet to be vaccinated.
Data so far suggests that Covid vaccines are holding out against the virus and protecting the double-jabbed from severe disease and death, Prof Pollard told MPs, adding that “the decision to boost or not” should be scientifically driven.
“The time which we would need to boost is if we saw evidence that there was an increase in hospitalisation or people dying amongst those who are vaccinated. That is not something that we’re seeing at the moment,” he said.
Doctors are not witnessing a problem with severe breakthrough cases of Covid, Prof Pollard added, and even if protection wanes, “we’re not going to get to the end of September and suddenly find that the pandemic starts again. If there was any fall-off in protection it is something which will happen gradually, and it will happen at a point where we can pick it up and be able to respond.”
Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert told the Daily Telegraph some vulnerable groups would need boosters but immunity was “lasting well” in most cases.
″We will look at each situation; the immunocompromised and elderly will receive boosters. But I don’t think we need to boost everybody. Immunity is lasting well in the majority of people,” she told the Telegraph.
“We need to get vaccines to countries where few of the population have been vaccinated so far,” she added.