Frontline health and social care workers are on the list of priority groups that should be offered a COVID-19 vaccine booster this autumn.
Preliminary advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has set out its recommendations to the Government for enhancing population immunity and protection against severe COVID to help prevent hospitalisations and deaths over the winter.
Prof Wei Shen Lim, chair of COVID-19 vaccination on the committee, explained that it was issuing interim advice now "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".
The JCVI's current view is that a COVID-19 vaccine should be offered this autumn to:
- Residents in a care home for older adults and staff
- Frontline health and social care workers
- All people aged 65 years and over
- Adults aged 16 to 64 years who are in a clinical risk group
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, approved of the strategy. He commented to the Science Media Centre: "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."
The JCVI said it recognised there was considerable uncertainty about the likelihood, timing, and severity of any potential future wave of COVID, but that protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus was most likely needed for the winter months. "Last year's autumn booster vaccination programme provided excellent protection against severe COVID-19, including against the Omicron variant," said Prof Lim, who is a consultant respiratory physician at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.
Advice May Be Updated
The JCVI will continue to review the vaccination programme and the epidemiological situation, particularly in relation to the timing and value of doses for less vulnerable older adults and those in clinical risk groups.
"As we continue to review the scientific data, further updates to this advice will follow," Prof Lim said.
Timing of the vaccination programme would be an important aspect of the rollout, Prof Ball emphasised, "as you don't want to wait until virus circulation has already started to increase".
Penny Ward, an independent pharmaceutical physician and visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King's College London, suggested that the advice could have included details of whether the COVID booster would be given at the same time as the annual influenza vaccine, "which might be welcomed by the hard-pressed community health services at the end of a couple of very busy years".
She also said it was "disappointing" that the JCVI "do not consider whether their continued advice to the immune compromised to keep coming forward for vaccination might be better supplanted by providing recommendations for access to pre-exposure prophylaxis".
Prof Ward explained: "Access to this product could enable the 'forgotten millions' of immune-compromised patients, that cannot mount an adequate response no matter how often they are vaccinated, [to] stop shielding and return to a more normal life. This group of patients do not clear virus readily, and waiting and treating illness may not only be less effective in terms of protecting their health but also risks the emergence of a variant resistant to the limited number of antivirals we currently have – a factor which would put the entire population back to square one."
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