The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended that Covid booster jabs be offered to people in their forties, after they became available to the over-fifties earlier this year. But, as recently as August, the World Health Organisation opposed booster jabs. It said in a statement:
‘In the context of ongoing global vaccine supply constraints, administration of booster doses will exacerbate inequities by driving up demand and consuming scarce supply.’
And in September Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s executive director in charge of the Covid response likened booster jabs to giving two life jackets to some of the passengers on the Titanic. In the same month, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, part of the team which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, made a similar point, saying that immunity was lasting well and booster doses were not needed for everyone.
A small proportion of the public appear to agree with the WHO. A recent poll conducted by the ONS revealed that four per cent of the population say they are ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ to have a booster jab – with almost a third of those saying they thought the boosters should be ‘offered to others instead of me’.
What evidence do we have so far on booster jabs? In September, the National Institute for Health Research reported initial results of Britain’s COV-BOOST study, which began administering booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine to volunteers in May (irrespective of whether they had received Pfizer or AstraZeneca for their first two doses). The results reported that the booster jabs were well-tolerated with few side effects and that they boosted immune response. Equally, the UK Health Security Agency found that, two weeks after receiving a booster dose, the over-fifties benefitted from protection against symptomatic infection at 93 per cent (for those who had AstraZeneca as their first course) and 94 per cent (Pfizer).
What we can’t really judge on existing evidence is how vital booster jabs are, or could become, in keeping Covid under control. This is because while immune response has been found to fade several months after people are given their first two doses of a Covid vaccine, the ability of jabs to fight serious disease seems to have remained very high. In other words, your second life jacket may be helping to keep you afloat – but you were probably at very little risk of drowning anyway.