Will We Really Need Annual Covid Jabs? Here's What Experts Say

Covid-19 is becoming endemic, making vaccines likely in future, but not forever.
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The UK government has ordered 114 million new doses of the Covid vaccine to be delivered in 2022 and 2023. That’s 60 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and 54 million of Pfizer/BioNTech. These vaccines aren’t part of the booster programme but for potential vaccine rounds in winter 2022 and beyond.

This comes after the head of Pfizer suggested Covid vaccines will be needed well into the future. “Based on everything I have seen so far, I would say that annual vaccinations... are likely to be needed to maintain a very robust and very high level of protection,” Pfizer chief executive Dr Albert Bourla told the BBC.

Dr Bourla continued by saying that without vaccines the “fundamental structure of our society would be threatened”.

Both of the vaccines on order, Moderna and Pfizer, are mRNA vaccines, which teach our cells how to produce protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. This immune response then creates antibodies that protect us from getting infected if we catch the real virus.

Following trials by the CovBoost study, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for booster jabs, and it’s likely this would be the case for yearly vaccines, too.

So, will we really need a yearly Covid-19 vaccine?

Dr David Matthews, reader in virology at the University of Bristol, describes the government’s advance vaccine order as a reasonable precaution.

“There are a lot of uncertainties right now so I think it’s prudent to pre-order now for next winter,” he says, especially in light of the new Omicron variant.

“There may be a variant out there to come that has properties that we can’t anticipate,” Dr Matthews adds. “In my opinion, the likelihood of a variant of the virus emerging that completely renders our vaccines useless and starts to put people back in hospital again in large numbers is unlikely, but not impossible.”

It’s better for the government to put in advance orders they can cancel, he says, then not having them when we need them. However, Dr Matthews isn’t convinced a yearly vaccine will be necessary.

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“In the long run, there’s a reasonable chance we won’t need vaccines every year,” he tells HuffPost UK. “For the first couple of years, we might, but I suspect over time, the need for it disappear. Or it may be that it’s only people who are particularly vulnerable that will need the vaccine.”

Dr Matthews explains why this is the case. “I think there’s a reasonable chance that what we’ll see happen over the next year is everyone catching the virus, and everyone who’s recovered from the virus will have a new memory of that infection. That new memory means that when they meet the virus, although the virus will be different, it won’t be completely different, and they will have some immune memory from their previous exposure, or from the vaccine, or both.”

So, yes, people will catch Covid-19 and even pass the virus on to other people, but they are likely to avoid hospitalisation. “If we can get it to the point where the vast majority of people avoid ending up in the hospital, then we will reach the point where it will become like the other common cold viruses,” he says.

Dr Julian W Tang, professor of respiratory sciences and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, agrees the need for an annual Covid vaccine will depend on how the Omicron variant behaves in populations globally.

“If Omicron causes similar hospitalisation rates as Delta, then we may all need regular Covid-19 vaccination just to maintain the current status quo, which people seem happy to live with at the moment – of 30,000-50,000 daily cases, with 500-1000 hospitalisations,” he tells HuffPost UK.

However, we are only just learning about the relative severity of Omicron. “Even if it is more transmissible and escapes vaccine protection, this may not matter if fewer people get sick enough to need hospitalisation,” says Dr Tang. “This would be more like flu and other seasonal common colds, which are more benign, endemic viruses.”

When we say Covid-19 has become endemic, says Dr Matthews, it means it’s gone from being something new, an outbreak in a small area, to pandemic, meaning new and global, to a part of everyday life – and not going away.

And it’s this, ultimately, that makes vaccination the key priority right now. As Dr Matthews says: “Everyone is going to catch the virus, and the vaccine is still 1000 times safer than catching the virus at whatever age.”