COVID Booster Programme Extended to All Adults as Omicron Cases Rise

Peter Russell

November 29, 2021

Booster COVID-19 vaccines are to be offered to all adults aged 18 and over in a major expansion of the programme.

The announcement came as 11 cases of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 were detected in the UK.

Six of the cases were identified in Scotland, and five in England.

The Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI) announced that the booster programme would be extended to 18-39 year olds who had received their second dose at least 3 months previously.

In a further development, children aged 12-15 should be offered a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech, also 3 months after their first dose.

Severely immunosuppressed people are to be eligible for another booster, meaning that some people in this cohort could be given a fourth vaccine dose.

The JCVI had previously advised that people aged 40 and over should be offered a booster vaccine.

The booster will be offered in order of descending age groups, with priority given to the vaccination of older adults and those in a COVID-19 at-risk group.

'Increased Concern'

At a news conference at Downing Street, Jonathan Van-Tam, England's deputy chief medical officer, said the Omicron variant was of "increased concern".

Mr Van-Tam acknowledged that Omicron, with its large number of mutations on the spike protein, had the potential to make current vaccines less effective. He said: "I do not want people to panic at this stage if vaccine effectiveness is reduced, as seems pretty likely to some extent. The biggest effects are likely to be in preventing infections, and hopefully there will be smaller effects on preventing severe disease."

Prof Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI, urged people to accept a booster vaccine which had been shown to "provide a very, very strong immune response".

He told the briefing: "If we can raise the level of the immune response generated by the vaccine, that higher level of immune response will reach out and provide extra protection to mismatched variants."

Using a characteristic football analogy, Mr Van-Tam likened the Omicron variant to "picking up a couple of yellow cards". He said: "We're not going to wait for the red card to happen – we're going to act decisively now. We're asking everyone to up their game; we're asking everyone to play their part in the urgency now of the booster programme."

Rise in Variant Cases

Two more cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in England, the UK Health Security Agency said today.

The individuals who tested positive both had links to travel to southern Africa. One case was detected in Camden, London and the other in the Wandsworth borough of the city.

The cases were in addition to the three cases in England previously announced – in Essex, Nottingham, and Westminster, London.

The UKHSA said it was carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive cases were likely to be infectious.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, said "It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days."

Earlier, the Scottish Government announced 6 cases of the mutated SARS-CoV-2 virus. Four were found in the County of Lanark, and two were identified in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, said not all the cases were linked to travel from southern Africa, where the mutated virus was first discovered. She said this suggested that "there might already be some community transmission of this variant in Scotland".

In the Commons this afternoon, England's Health Secretary Sajid acknowledged that expansion of the booster programme would impact on the health service. "I know that we are asking more from NHS colleagues who've already given us so much throughout this crisis, but I know that they will be up to the task," he assured MPs.

Mask Wearing

Precautionary measures have been announced by the Government to contain or slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

From 4 AM on Tuesday November 30, face coverings will be compulsory in shops and other settings, including banks, post offices, hairdressers, and on public transport.

School pupils in England have been advised they should wear masks in communal areas.

At the same time, all travellers arriving in the country will be required to take a PCR test on or before day 2, and self-isolate until they have received a negative test result.

Ten countries in southern Africa, where the variant is thought to have originated, are currently on the UK's "red" travel list.

Antiviral 'Rethink'

Concerns have also been highlighted about the effectiveness of antivirals

Molnupiravir (Lagevrio, Merck Sharp & Dohme) which can be taken at home, is for people who have had a positive COVID test and have at least one risk factor for developing severe illness, such as being over the age of 60, having diabetes mellitus, or heart disease.

The drug works by interfering with the virus's replication, keeping virus levels low in the body and therefore reducing the severity of the disease.

In clinical trials molnupiravir was found to be effective in reducing the risk of hospitalisation or death for at-risk non-hospitalised adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 by 50%.

It was approved for use in the UK on November 4 by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

Speaking at a Downing Street news conference on Saturday, Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's chief medical adviser, said the rollout of anti-virals might need to be reconsidered in the light on the new variant.

Prof Whitty told a Downing Street press conference on Saturday: "On the anti-virals, we are going to have to do a bit of a rethink on the basis of this new variant, just to be confident we've got the right indications from it."

He added: "There’s a variety of ways you could use it in different ways, and what we need to make sure is whatever stock we’ve got of these, what appear to be highly effective drugs, that we use in the most effective way and for the right people."

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