What we all want to know about this autumn’s Covid booster jab such as how do you find out if you are eligible and can I get it after catching Omicron?
Q: I’ve got nothing against vaccines, but I’ve just had Covid so do I really need another booster?
A: Yes, but you must wait at least a month after infection before having the jab, as interactions between the virus and vaccine could make the jab less effective.
The reason another dose is needed, however, is that there is still a question mark about how long immunity lasts after natural infection.
A wealth of studies have shown that extra doses of the Covid jab dramatically lower the risk of hospitalisation for at least six months after the vaccine – by about 80 per cent. They also reduce the risk of infection for up to six months.
But there is less clear evidence regarding natural infection.
A wealth of studies have shown that extra doses of the Covid jab dramatically lower the risk of hospitalisation for at least six months after the vaccine – by about 80 per cent. They also reduce the risk of infection for up to six months
Recently, researchers from Imperial College London found that being infected with the Omicron variant offers poor protection against catching the virus again
Most adults received their last booster dose in December, while 80 per cent of over- 75-year-olds had a spring booster. This means most people have gone between five and nine months without an extra dose
Recently, researchers from Imperial College London found that being infected with the Omicron variant offers poor protection against catching the virus again.
‘We know protective antibodies are nowhere near as high after natural infection, when compared with a dose of the vaccine,’ says Dr Penny Ward, Professor in Pharmaceutical Medicine at King’s College London.
‘This determines how long it will be before antibodies drop to the level they were at originally.
‘We also know that vaccines offer a host of other benefits for the immune system, including boosting the response of long-lasting fighter T cells.
‘With natural infection, this effect seems to vary more between individuals.
‘If you want high-quality protection that lasts as long as possible, getting vaccinated at least every six months if you’re vulnerable, and every year if you’re not, is probably the best way to do it.’
Most adults received their last booster dose in December, while 80 per cent of over- 75-year-olds had a spring booster.
This means most people have gone between five and nine months without an extra dose.
Q: What if a new variant crops up? Surely the booster won’t be of much use?
A: Experts say it is inevitable that the virus will eventually evolve into further strains that can evade our immune systems’ fighter cells. Unfortunately, this becomes more and more likely as greater numbers of us are somewhat protected.
‘The virus is unlikely to stand still,’ says Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham. ‘Omicron immunity [from vaccines] might push Covid down other evolutionary paths.’
However, experts are hopeful that unless there is a major shift in the virus, the boosters will still fight off severe disease from forthcoming variants.
Experts say it is inevitable that the virus will eventually evolve into further strains that can evade our immune systems’ fighter cells. Unfortunately, this becomes more and more likely as greater numbers of us are somewhat protected
Dr Ward says the proteins on the outside of viral cells – the spike proteins – are broadly similar regardless of variant, meaning all jabs will offer some protection in the future.
‘The original vaccines have remained protective against severe disease despite various mutations,’ she says. ‘It is true that we might see less robust effects with future variants in terms of infections, but it is likely they’ll remain mild.’
Q: Do we really need a booster, as Covid seems to be disappearing again?
A: You’d be forgiven for thinking an autumn booster was excessive. Last week it was announced that UK health chiefs had downgraded Britain’s Covid alert level to 2 – the lowest it has been since the scoring system was introduced.
This means the virus is still spreading but infections are either stable or in decline.
Despite two large spikes in early summer, driven by the arrival of Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, infections and hospitalisations are firmly on a downward trend.
Covid cases dropped below one million last week for the first time since June – down 25 per cent from the week before.
But the picture is likely to change as we reach the colder months. Previous years have seen cases surge as the temperature drops, blamed on more socialising taking place indoors.
The main objective of the autumn booster programme is to prevent overwhelming pressure on the NHS this winter
The main objective of the autumn booster programme is to prevent overwhelming pressure on the NHS this winter.
Experts are expecting a surge in non-Covid respiratory illnesses such as flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Britons have had little exposure to these infections over the past two years, thanks to social restrictions. Now a resurgence is likely – landing many older, vulnerable people in hospital. And with the NHS already almost at capacity, health chiefs want to avoid bouts of extra illness.
Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said the boosters are ‘designed to keep as many people as possible well and out of hospital, and to protect the NHS’.
Q: I have a health condition that means the jabs don’t work as well. Is there any point in getting another booster?
A: About 500,000 Britons do not respond to vaccines due to problems with their immune systems. This includes those with blood cancer, transplant patients and people who take medication that suppresses their immunity.
Throughout the vaccination programme this group has received top-up jabs to boost their protection. The autumn booster – for which this group have been prioritised – will be the sixth jab they have been offered.
Studies have shown that most of these patients, following extra doses given at more regular intervals, are able to reach the level of antibodies others get after a single jab.
It is for this reason the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised that these patients wait only eight weeks between doses, compared with 12 for everyone else.
But for some of these people, no amount of vaccine will stop them becoming very ill with Covid.
‘In people without a functioning immune system, vaccines simply don’t work,’ says Dr Ward.
A small number of people in this group mount no antibodies at all after three jabs. But evidence shows that giving patients an infusion of a treatment called Evusheld – which contains Covid-specific antibodies – before they become infected, is far more effective.
According to data from the Office For National Statistics, between seven and nine per cent of triple-jabbed people will suffer Covid symptoms four to eight weeks after testing positive with Omicron
Given once every six months, Evusheld can reduce the chance of infection by 80 per cent and severe disease by 50 per cent.
But the Government refuses to approve the drug, claiming there is ‘insufficient evidence’ the drug provides long-lasting protection against the Omicron variant. Charities and doctors are currently fighting against the decision. As it stands, a review isn’t scheduled until April.
‘It is an absolute disgrace,’ says Dr Ward. ‘Health Secretaries of other nations have approved Evusheld, and there is no sound reason not to. Instead, health chiefs will keep telling these individuals to have vaccine after vaccine, and they’ll continue to see no benefit.’
Q: Is it safe to have the flu jab at the same time as my booster?
A: Yes. In fact, many surgeries and community hubs will be running dual clinics so you can have one shot in each arm.
A review paper published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal last year concluded that there was no interference between the two vaccines.
Despite anecdotal reports that the double-dose last year was linked to worse side effects, having both at the same time was deemed ‘safe and effective’.
Some studies have also suggested that the Covid booster makes the flu jab more effective, and vice versa.
Last week, pharmaceutical giant Moderna announced that it is developing a six-in-one ‘superjab’, which will protect against strains of Covid-19, flu and RSV in one shot. But bosses say we’ll have to wait until winter of 2025 to get it.
Q: What about long Covid – will the booster protect me from that?
A: Yes. According to data from the Office For National Statistics, between seven and nine per cent of triple-jabbed people will suffer Covid symptoms four to eight weeks after testing positive with Omicron.
Other studies have shown that two jabs cut the risk of long Covid in half, compared with unjabbed or those with one dose.
And experts say that there is real-life evidence that extra shots further slash the chances.
Professor Danny Altmann, a virus expert from Imperial College London, says: ‘Colleagues in Singapore, a country with a large peak of Omicron infections following a relatively mild early pandemic, talk of long Covid clinics without patients.’
Meanwhile, figures from the Office For National Statistics show long Covid cases have fallen to 1.8 million, from a peak of two million in May.
Also, Australian data suggests that new-generation vaccines provide up to 85 per cent protection against symptomatic infection with any Omicron strain. And the lower the chance of infection, the smaller the risk of long Covid.
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