ew variations of coronavirus are likely to be kept under control through annual booster shots similar to flu jabs rather than a wholescale vaccination programme, a leading epidemiologist has said.
Dr Susan Hopkins said UK health experts are currently looking at what further protection might be needed against coronavirus variants among people who have already been fully vaccinated.
She said it may mean protection offered by existing vaccines may be reduced, even though the overall level of protection is still very good.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference on Monday, she said: “It is unlikely that people would have to start (the vaccine treatment) again.
“It is much more likely that it would be a booster shot – a bit like the annual flu vaccine.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS was well versed in dealing with variations in the flu virus.
He told the briefing: “For 40 years we’ve had a flu vaccination programme and every year the flu jab is updated to make sure that it is as effective as possible against new variants.
“This is a standard part of what the NHS does every autumn to protect us from the flu.
“I hope through this vaccine then through the work that we’re doing with the vaccines manufacturers and the scientists, to get this to the same place – that it is something people have as standard.”
Dr Peter English, a consultant in communicable disease control and a former editor of Vaccines In Practice magazine, explained that the first jab of a two-dose vaccine programme acts to “prime” the immune system.
He told the PA news agency: “The immune system learns to recognise the antigen and starts to produce some changes to the immune system and it starts to generate the cells that can recognise that.”
But he said that it was the second dose that produces a much greater level of antibodies and T cells.
Dr English said new technologies have made tailoring booster vaccines to virus variations quite straightforward and a patient’s immune system would already have been primed by the initial vaccine rollout.
“We manage to vaccinate all those aged over 65 and a whole load of young children in GPs and community pharmacies every year for flu,” he said.
“There’s no particular reason why we won’t be able to do that with Covid-19 (booster) shots.”
Currently it is still unknown whether the medicines regulator will treat each new iteration of the Covid-19 jab as a new vaccine that will have to go through the same stringent approval process.
Variations of the flu vaccine are not subject to lengthy trials, as they are only differ slightly from vaccine platforms that have been in use over many decades.
Dr English noted that at the moment, Covid-19 appears to mutate more slowly than flu, meaning the vaccine might not have to be updated as regularly.