Which booster should I get?
Prof Faust’s study, published in the Lancet, which looked at the AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Novavax, Janssen, Valneva and CureVac jabs, found that while all worked well as a third dose, some were more effective than others. “The RNA – Pfizer and Moderna – were very high, but there were also very effective boosts from Novavax, Janssen and AstraZeneca as well.”
The vast majority of people will be offered the Pfizer or Moderna jabs and the small number of people who are ineligible for this type of jab will be offered AstraZeneca. As with the first vaccine round you won’t be able to choose which vaccine you get so there’s a chance you may receive a different brand of booster. A study by Oxford University found that mixing and matching vaccines can actually induce more immunity than having the same brand of jab.
Will the vaccine need to be tweaked to make it more effective?
The flu jab needs to be reformulated every year because a different strain circulates each season. It’s an imperfect solution because scientists have to make an educated guess as to which strain is likely to be dominant – some years they miss the mark, meaning vaccine efficacy is as low as 10 per cent. It’s too early to say whether Covid jabs will have to undergo the same process. The vaccines we’re using at the moment were all developed to work against the original Wuhan or “wild” variant, and we know from the past year that they’re effective against alpha and delta strains. But whether that means they’ll be effective against all future variants is another question.
Should I wait for an omicron version of the vaccine?
“No,” says Prof Faust. “People need to have boosters as quickly as they can.” Scientists at the UK Health Security Agency are currently looking at samples from Prof Faust’s study to see how well the omicron variant can be neutralised by vaccines, so it might be that our current boosters are good enough. Levels of immunity in young people from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines “are high”, he adds.
In recent studies, booster doses have been found to provide 93 per cent protection against severe disease. At the moment, it is not known how well the jabs work against the new omicron variant, and there may be a level of “mismatch” between vaccine and variant. However, scientists believe that the jabs are still likely to prevent severe disease.
Similarly, analysis by the UKHSA has found that the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines provide “much lower” levels of protection against symptomatic infection with omicron compared with delta.
But the UKHSA said a booster dose gives around 70 per cent to 75 per cent protection against symptomatic infection with omicron, as it urged people to have their boosters.
Will a future vaccine replace the need for boosters?
There are several trials underway that are testing vaccines that work against multiple variants – to remove the need to tweak a vaccine every year. But scientists don’t know how long immunity from these “variant-busting” vaccines will last, so an annual top up may still be required.
What will this mean for the NHS?
GPs, pharmacies, hospitals and even the military have been roped into this “Great British vaccination effort”, as the Prime Minister described it. GPs have already been told they can drop routine checks for the over 75s in a bid to speed up the roll out.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, says that a booster campaign would be “good value for money”, but without proper funding and training it could overwhelm the health system.
“We need to have a forward vision,” he adds. “This thing is not going away, and because it’s not going away we need to invest in our primary care networks and community pharmacists.”
Paul Mainwood, an analyst tracking the UK’s vaccine rollout, added that the cost of the current programme “is negligible compared to the cost of a) a new lockdown, b) crashing NHS capacity in about two months”.
There are now 3,000 vaccination sites across the country – more than double the number at the start of the year – while pop-up clinics will make shots even more accessible. You can find your nearest walk-in clinic offering booster jabs using the NHS finder.
The NHS has also been recruiting 10,000 paid vaccinators and also volunteers as the vaccination rollout expands again.