Pfizer shots for over-50s recommended in UK booster drive

By James Paton

A U.K. panel recommended giving COVID-19 booster shots to people aged 50 and over and other vulnerable groups as the government aims to bolster the immunity of its population and avert a potential winter virus surge.

An extra dose of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine is the preferred option, regardless of which brand of shot a person received previously, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said in a statement on Tuesday. It should be administered no earlier than six months after the second vaccine, and the panel recommended that the rollout begin this month.

A half dose of the Moderna Inc. shot may be offered as an alternative, the panel said. In cases where people can’t have a messenger RNA vaccine because of allergies or other reasons, the AstraZeneca Plc shot may be considered for those who received it previously.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to confirm later on Tuesday that the booster roll out will begin in the autumn. The shots should be given to people more at risk from serious disease, including those living in residential care homes, frontline health workers, and younger people with underlying health conditions, the panel said.

U.K. studies on boosters are being closely watched globally. Knowing that people can safely receive a third shot that’s based on a technology different from the previous ones could give countries more flexibility in their efforts to widen vaccination coverage and escape the pandemic.

At the same time, Britain’s move follows months of debate over the need for third shots. Some countries are moving ahead with them amid an increased threat from the delta variant and studies suggesting waning antibody levels in vaccinated individuals. Yet World Health Organization officials have urged governments to wait at least until the end of the year so that poorer countries get better access to vaccines, adding that the scientific evidence on boosters is insufficient.

A review published this week by a panel of scientists from around the world concluded that governments should focus on immunizing the unvaccinated and wait for more data on which boosters would be most effective and at what doses. Vaccination has shown an average of 95% effectiveness against severe disease, including against variants such as delta, and more than 80% effectiveness at preventing any infection, according to the report in the medical journal The Lancet.

In the U.K., the National Health Service has been preparing for booster shots since July, but ministers have waited for the final advice from the committee before giving the program the green light. Cases remain relatively high in the country, but Johnson is keen to enter a new chapter in the pandemic, moving away from the threat of lockdowns and mandatory vaccine passports toward more individual choices and freedoms.

The U.S. plans to roll out booster shots as soon as Sept. 20, though the proposal still needs sign-off from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Joe Biden’s advisers said last month that the data supported the need for boosters and that they would begin preparing for them.

Israel, Germany and France are among other countries that have started or plan to offer additional shots to vulnerable groups.

The U.K.’s medical regulator cleared the way for boosters last week, saying that the Pfizer and Astra vaccines can be used as safe and effective doses. Europe, meanwhile, is stepping closer to booster shots as regulators review data on third jabs from Pfizer and Moderna.

Britain announced in May that the Cov-Boost study would provide vital data on the impact of a third dose on patients’ immune responses, testing seven vaccines as potential boosters.

The plans follow a decision by the U.K. to offer vaccines to all children as young as 12 starting next week in a bid to reduce disruption in schools. The country’s chief medical officers recommended giving a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and called on the immunization committee to weigh in on whether and how to give second doses once more data are available.

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