The UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced that this year’s autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccine program will start earlier than planned in England as a precautionary measure following the identification of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant.
Vaccinations are now set to start on 11 September 2023 in England with adult care home residents and those most at risk to receive vaccines first. The vaccination campaign was previously due to commence in early October.
The precautionary measure is being taken as scientists from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) examine the variant BA.2.86, which was first detected in the UK on Friday 18 August 2023. According to the latest risk assessment by UKHSA, BA.2.86 has a high number of mutations and has appeared in several countries in individuals without travel history.
While BA.2.86 is not currently classified as a variant of concern, advice from UKHSA suggests that speeding up the autumn vaccine program will deliver greater protection, supporting those at greatest risk of severe illness and reducing the potential impact on the NHS.
“The earlier we start vaccination, the better as it will give more time to give the vaccine to people as it is not possible to do everyone in a very short period of time due to resources and some people will need to delay for various reasons. COVID rates are increasing so it is sensible to get the protection in now. The earlier the vaccine is given the more likely this will be before someone gets infected.”Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease, University of Nottingham
The decision means those most at risk from winter illness – including people in care homes for older people, the clinically vulnerable, those aged 65 and over, health and social care staff, and carers – will be able to access a COVID vaccine in September.
The annual flu vaccine will also be made available to these groups at the same time wherever possible, to ensure they are protected ahead of winter.
Vaccinations are now set to start on 11 September 2023, with adult care home residents and those most at risk to receive vaccines first. NHS England will announce full details of the accelerated roll-out soon, and those who fall into higher-risk groups are being encouraged to take up the jab as soon as they’re invited.
“There’s currently no publicly available data to suggest that BA.2.86 is able to overwhelm present levels of immunity to the most serious, life-threatening forms of Covid-19. However some people are more vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus and we shouldn’t forget that immunity wanes over time. The mutations present in BA.2.86 mean that there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding how it will behave come the winter when there is increased risk of Covid-19 making people seriously ill, so health authorities have taken the decision to get the vaccination programme started 3 weeks sooner than originally planned.
This will only be our fourth winter with Covid-19, so science and medicine still have a lot to learn about how the weather influences spread of this particular virus. Operationally it just makes sense to get the ball rolling and to not do it at the same time as the flu jab would be folly, people might not bother going for the second jab or mistakenly assume that one jab protects against two very different viruses.”Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology, University of Reading
Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, Dame Jenny Harries noted that operational expediency and in line with public health recommendations, wherever possible flu and COVID-19 vaccines should be administered at the same time.