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New Covid variant BA.2.86: does the UK booster programme go far enough?

A “faster-than-planned” rollout of Covid booster vaccines is underway in England amid controversy over denying the shots to healthy adults under 65. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) began the programme this morning, accelerating its launch over “concerns” about a new Covid variant, said BBC News. There have been 34 confirmed cases of BA.2.86 in England, with 28 of those in one Norfolk care home. 

All adults aged 65 and over are eligible, as well as care home residents, frontline health and care workers and those who are clinically at risk, plus their households if aged between 12 and 64. But unlike in 2022, boosters will not be offered to healthy adults aged 50 to 64. 

Ministers are facing “urgent calls” to reconsider, said The Guardian. Members of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus wrote to the prime minister warning that the NHS could struggle to cope with a winter of high case numbers. 

‘Most of us have survived an infection’

Denying under-65s Covid jabs is the right call, given that “almost every one of us has survived one, and most of us have already survived multiple, Covid infections”, Paul Hunter, professor of infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, told The Guardian.

“Other than doing a population-level vaccination programme, I don’t know what the alternative really is,” said Steve Brine, the Conservative chair of health select committee. The government says it is following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Brine said he “wouldn’t be making any different decision”. 

It’s a different situation to 2020 and 2021, said Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, thanks to varying degrees of immunity from vaccines and infections. Many of those infected experience a “mild, asymptomatic illness and don’t even know they have it”, she told Sky News. 

‘Rocky ride’ ahead

The government is “being a bit cavalier and thinking this is just going to be fine”, said the all-party parliamentary group chair, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.

Some MPs believe the JCVI “looked too narrowly” at the criteria by only considering “hospitalisations and deaths”, Jim Reed, BBC health reporter, told Radio 4’s “Today” programme, and not the “wider impact” such as people with infections missing work or school.

Simon Williams, a public health researcher at Swansea University, agreed that extending the booster to over-50s would be a “sensible precaution”. Lawrence Young, a professor of virology at the University of Warwick, said the UK faced a “rocky ride” this winter. 

There is “a real case to be made for widening the criteria for who gets a booster”, Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told The Independent. “(We should) make it accessible to those who want to have it.”

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