Healthy younger people in the UK may never be offered another Covid jab, a leading expert has said, as a new wave of infections is expected to hit the country in the coming weeks.
Giving his personal expert opinion, Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, suggested there was little point in offering a fourth jab to those yet to pass middle age, at least in the current landscape.
“I think it’s questionable whether young, healthy people will ever be offered another Covid vaccine beyond dose three – at least with the vaccines and variants we have now,” Finn said, although he added both could change.
“You just don’t achieve anything very useful by [further] immunising healthy young people with these vaccines because they rarely get sick – which the vaccines prevent,” he said, adding that vaccines offered poor and short-lived protection against mild infection and onwards transmission.
In March, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, suggested the second booster programme could be expanded in the autumn; at present a spring booster is available only to particular groups, including those aged 75 and over and care home residents.
It has not yet been revealed which groups would be included in a wider rollout.
Another member of the JCVI told the Guardian the assumption that younger, healthy people would not be given a further dose was not unreasonable given the limitations of current vaccines and reduced disease severity in that cohort.
“Boosters are really about individual protection and future-proofing for autumn disease resurgence, given global vaccine supplies,” they said.
Finn said that among people who were vaccinated, an infection offered a boost to antibodies equivalent to another dose of vaccine, and could theoretically provide broader T-cell protection against non-spike proteins of the coronavirus.
“I wouldn’t advise people to actively try to get infected, but if it happens – and in many people it will – the compensation for any illness or inconvenience they experience is that it should leave them in a good place immunity-wise,” he said.
However, Prof Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, cautioned that infection with the Omicron variant did not appear to produce a strong immune response, with many people being repeatedly infected at intervals of some weeks.
Infections could also lead to the risk of long Covid, Altmann noted, adding that while current vaccines had limitations, boosters still increased immunity and reduced susceptibility to reinfection and serious disease, even in younger people.
According to data released on Friday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Covid levels, while falling, remain high in the UK, with an estimated one in 35 people in the community in England having Covid in the week ending 30 April – the lowest level since the start of the year. About 1.8 million people in the UK are experiencing long Covid, about 2.8% of the population.
Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said while the vaccine-induced immune response in younger people was more robust than in older adults, it was debatable whether further booster jabs in the former were unnecessary.
“Faced with future vaccine-dodging variants and with continued uncertainty about the long-term consequences of Covid infection, it will be important to monitor the duration of protection in [younger people],” he said, adding that while vaccination did not completely stop transmission, it did reduce virus spread.
“The winter months are likely to be challenging with new Covid variants as well as other respiratory infections,” he added. “While the priority is to keep the elderly and clinically vulnerable safe, it would be dangerous to ignore [younger, healthy people].”
Two new forms of Omicron labelled BA.4 and BA.5 are already being closely watched in the UK following a rise in cases in South Africa, with early data suggesting they could have a growth advantage over BA.2 – the form of Omicron that is dominant in the UK.
While the numbers of infections in the UK identified as BA.4 or BA.5 are low, some experts believe the UK is likely to experience a new wave of Covid – although how large this could be, and its potential impact, remains unclear. That is, in part, because the UK experienced a larger BA.2 wave and has higher levels of vaccination than South Africa, both of which may offer greater protection against infection with BA.4 and BA.5.