JCVI members concerned Covid booster decision ‘political, not clinical’

Following recommendations by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, more than 30 million people are to be offered a third vaccine dose in the months ahead. All over-50s, clinically vulnerable individuals and healthcare workers will be eligible, assuming they’ve been fully vaccinated for more than six months.

The decision to roll out Covid booster jabs to millions of Britons has left the UK’s vaccines watchdog divided, The Independent understands, with some members of the committee concerned that the policy has become politicised.

But the advice comes amid concerns within the wider scientific community that booster jabs are only required for select groups, such as the immunocompromised and clinically vulnerable, and do not need to be rolled out en masse.

These same considerations have split the JCVI, The Independent has been told, with “several” members thought to be opposed to the UK’s programme, which launches from next week.

“There have been disagreements about the value of booster jabs,” one JCVI insider said. Another suggested No 10 is “hanging on to something that looks vaguely good and vaguely positive”.

Senior government health sources insist that double jabbing all Britons remains the priority ahead of booster jabs, but Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, likening the programme to campers who prepare against an incoming storm, said it was “better to put some extra guy ropes” on the tent now than to “wait until it’s the middle of the night and it’s howling with wind and rain”.

No 10 is ‘hanging on to something that looks vaguely good and vaguely positive’

It’s expected that surges in cases of Covid, flu and other respiratory illness could make for a “bumpy winter at times”, England’s deputy chief medical officer told a Downing Street briefing on Tuesday. “We are in an active phase of the pandemic still.”

JCVI sources said it was right to offer booster jabs to the immunocompromised, amounting to roughly 500,000 people in Britain, followed by the clinically vulnerable. But for other eligible groups, such as those in their 50s, it remains unclear what further protective benefits will be acquired against severe disease and death, they said.

“If the signal the government is trying to send is that a booster for over-50s – in the already vaccinated – can prevent the range of pressures on the NHS this winter, forcing some restrictions to contain infections, then that’s simply wrong,” one of the JCVI members said. The second JCVI figure said the basis for the programme appeared to be “political, not clinical” in nature.

Government health sources said they do not know yet what the effects of the booster programme will be on hospitalisation rates due to a current lack of real-world data, but have “every reason to believe that it’ll be good”.

The JCVI’s recommendation has been drawn from a number of encouraging clinical studies, including the COV-Boost study, which showed that there is a several-fold increase in antibodies after a third vaccine dose.

The ongoing administration of booster jabs in Israel, where hospitalisations now appear to be falling after the country’s latest wave of infections, has also raised hope among officials that the UK’s own programme will be effective in maintaining high protection levels this winter.

A study published by Public Health England on Tuesday has meanwhile found that there is “some indication” of waning protection against hospitalisation from 15 weeks after a second dose, in particular among recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, the analysis said, this reduction appears to be predominantly in clinical risk groups, such as the immunocompromised.

Professor Chris Whitty, speaking during Tuesday’s briefing, said “there is now reasonably good evidence that that is the case,” while Sir Patrick Vallance said the vaccines are generally holding up “very well” against hospital admissions and death.

The JCVI sources said more priority also needed to be given to flu vaccinations. In what is the largest NHS programme of its kind, more than 35 million people are to be offered a jab or nasal spray vaccine, but there are worries that logistical challenges and supply chain issues could derail these efforts.

Amid the focus on Covid, there are also concerns that the administration of vaccines against other infections, such as human papillomavirus virus (HPV), could be affected.

According to minutes from a JCVI meeting held in June, there has been a 20 per cent reduction in adolescent immunisations across the UK during the pandemic.

“But the government priority is clear that everything stops for Covid,” said one of the JCVI sources. “Covid is the only thing in town.”

Aside from the mixed evidence, debates around booster programmes have also centred on the need to vaccinate the rest of the world before offering out third doses to the double-jabbed.

On Monday, the head of the COVAX Facility, the global vaccine-sharing initiative established to secure doses for poorer countries, told The Independent that the UK’s booster programme would be “counter-productive”, arguing that the supplies set to be used for 30 million Britons would be put to better use in protecting people in poorer countries who remain unvaccinated.

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