The UK is not currently seeing any major lapse in the protection offered by Covid-19 vaccines, the director of the Oxford vaccine group has said, as the Culture Secretary insisted the country was “not an outlier” in offering booster jabs.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, whose team developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said he believes the priority should be to donate vaccines to countries where people are still awaiting a first dose.
His views have been echoed by his colleague Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, a key Oxford scientist, who said booster jabs may not be needed by everyone.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said on Thursday that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs are safe to use as boosters, but the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has yet to give its advice to ministers.
A final decision and announcement on who should get boosters and in which order of priority is now expected early next week.
The JCVI has already said a third dose should be offered to people with severely weakened immune systems.
Several other countries, including the US, Israel, Hungary, Germany and France, have announced or have started third dose programmes for at least some of their people.
Sir Andrew told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What I think is really important, and as JCVI will be, is looking at the data on whether boosters might be needed – so in other words, looking at who is ending up in hospital, who are the people who are losing immunity at the moment.
“And as far as I’m aware, up to this point, we’ve not seen any major breakdown in protection that we have in our population.”
He said immune responses “do start to fall” over time “and of course that is happening at the moment”.
Sir Andrew added: “Here in the UK the the levels of immunity have fallen, but that’s not the same as the levels of protection.”
He said that “in the vast majority of the population, we still are enjoying very high levels of protection despite that declining immunity” and added it was important to separate the two things.
Asked whether there was a moral issue over giving booster shots when millions of people in other countries are unvaccinated, he said: “I think for the politicians, absolutely, if there is a need to vaccinate people to defend health, then that is their responsibility to the electorate, to us.
“So that’s why it’s really important to follow the data and to look at where the potential is for improving protection if that’s actually needed, but there is a very separate issue which you raise here, which is the global situation.
“At this moment, there is a fire raging all around the world, with huge pressure on health systems in many, many countries, and at the G7 meeting in early June, there were very substantial pledges of money and vaccines.
“Now a lot of that money has flowed, so Covax is now in a very good position to start by buying the fire hoses for that fire.
“But what we really need is to turn the tap on and get the water to those countries, and we need that to happen today.
“Since the G7 in June, 800,000 people died.”
Sir Andrew said the rapid spread of the Delta variant means “we aren’t seeing so far, rapid evolution of new variants that are threatening the world today”.
But he said new variants may well emerge in the future and were just as likely to occur in vaccinated as unvaccinated populations.
The UK’s chief medical officers are currently drawing up advice to Government on whether children aged 12 to 15 should be vaccinated after the JCVI said the margin of benefit from vaccinating healthy children was too small to say they should receive a jab.
Sir Andrew, a leading paediatrician, said: “As was said by JCVI just last week, there’s a marginal benefit in vaccinating other children.
“But the real problem for children at this moment is the psychological impact of Covid, the fact that they’re missing school and their education is suffering.
“And what we’ve got to get right here is our behaviours and how we manage them and keep them in school rather than focus on the vaccines as the solution to that, because the vaccination will have a very marginal benefit to them as individuals.”
It comes as the Culture Secretary defended a booster programme, saying the UK was “not an outlier” in offering third doses.
Oliver Dowden told Sky News: “First of all, there is a range of opinion among scientists – this is why we have the JCVI to give us the authoritative advice and we’ll follow that advice.
“In terms of support for other countries, we are committed to 100 million jabs going by 2022, we have already delivered nine million, so it is not an either/or – we are doing both of those things.
“It is interesting because I was at an international conference earlier this week talking to my counterparts.
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“Pretty much all nations are looking at doing a booster programme – Israel are already doing it – so we are not an outlier in doing this.”
Mr Dowden said the Government has “no plans” to extend mandatory vaccinations beyond where there is a “clinical need”, following US president Joe Biden’s ultimatum to big business on the other side of the Atlantic.
Mr Biden has warned all employers with more than 100 workers that their staff will be required to be vaccinated or face weekly testing for the virus, affecting about 80 million Americans.
Asked whether ministers could pursue a similar policy, Mr Dowden told Sky News vaccines were being mandated in care homes and could be across the health service, but there were no plans at present to extend that.
He added: “All I would say is that during this Covid crisis, you never know what is going to happen, but currently at the moment we have no plans to do that.”
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Elsewhere, Dame Sarah told The Daily Telegraph that the elderly and people with weakened immune systems should be in line for a third jab, but said: “I don’t think we need to boost everybody.”
She added: “As the virus spreads between people, it mutates and adapts and evolves, like the Delta variant.
“With these outbreaks, we want to stop that as quickly as possible.
“We will look at each situation; the immunocompromised and elderly will receive boosters.
“But I don’t think we need to boost everybody. Immunity is lasting well in the majority of people.”
She said there was a “need to get vaccines to countries where few of the population have been vaccinated so far”.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said, “we are heading towards our booster programme” in England but he wanted the “final opinion of the JCVI”.
He added: “I’m confident that our booster programme will start later this month but I’m still awaiting the final advice.”