The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has responded to the emergence of the Omicron variant and updated its guidance, with immediate effect.
A statement from the JCVI has stated that it may be that higher levels of antibody induced by vaccines directed at the original ‘wild type’ variant will provide better protection against the Omicron variant, as has been demonstrated in laboratory studies with respect to other variants. Studies are underway nationally and internationally to determine the validity of this assertion.
The JCVI is advising the following immediate measures within the COVID-19 vaccine programmes:
- Booster vaccination eligibility should be expanded to include all adults aged 18 years to 39 years.
- Booster vaccination should now 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. Booster vaccination should not be given within 3 months of completion of the primary course.
- Severely immunosuppressed individuals who have completed their primary course (3 doses) should be offered a booster dose with a minimum of 3 months between the third primary and booster dose. Those who have not yet received their third dose may be given the third dose now to avoid further delay. A further booster dose can be given in 3 months, in line with the clinical advice on optimal timing.
- Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines should be used with equal preference in the COVID-19 booster programme. Both vaccines have been shown to substantially increase antibody levels when offered as a booster dose.
In addition, JCVI advises the following secondary measure, subject to appropriate consideration by deployment teams regarding feasibility.
All children and young people aged 12 to 15 years should be offered a second dose (30 micrograms) of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a minimum of 12 weeks from the first dose. The interval between vaccines may be reduced to at least 8 weeks between doses if the emerging epidemiological data supports this (and those aged 16 to 17 may also be offered their second dose with an interval of at least 8 weeks).
The overall intention of the measures advised above is to accelerate the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines before the peak of any impending wave due to the Omicron variant. There is currently no data to indicate that Omicron infection is associated with a change in the pattern of susceptibility to serious COVID-19 (hospitalisation and death). Persons of older age, or who are in COVID-19 at-risk groups are likely to remain at higher risk from serious COVID-19; therefore, vaccination should be prioritised accordingly.
Dr June Raine, MHRA Chief Executive said: “The public can be confident that our robust regulatory assessment supports the JCVI’s recommended extension to the vaccination campaign. This further strengthens our ability to ensure people are protected against COVID-19 and saves lives.
“Our safety monitoring to date shows that COVID-19 vaccines continue to be safe and effective for the vast majority of people. The vast majority of reactions which are reported relate to expected side effects such as injection site reactions and flu-like symptoms, as was seen in our initial assessment. Our proactive monitoring of the safety of booster doses does not raise any new concerns.
“We have continued to carefully scrutinise all the data we have available to us and our robust surveillance programme includes monitoring all suspected reactions for young people and adolescents as well as adults. We ensure all suspected reports are carefully followed up. When you are called for your booster dose, you can come forward confident that the benefits in preventing serious COVID-19 far outweigh any risks.”