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Millions of vulnerable Brits will likely need a Covid booster jab every year and it could be given at the same time as an annual flu shot, say experts.
About 32 million people in England could receive their third coronavirus jabs from September in the next stage of the biggest vaccination programme in UK history.
A British clinical trial – the first of its kind in the world – was launched to find out whether boosters are safe and effective in extending immune protection against coronavirus, and which vaccines could be used for third jabs.
The Government is considering whether to give a booster vaccine for Covid-19 along with the flu jab over the winter as health officials prepare for a potential surge in influenza cases this year.
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Brit Margaret Keenan, then aged 90, was the first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine
Experts told the Mirror that more data is needed to determine how long two-dose protection lasts and how often people will need a booster jab.
But is likely to become an annual requirement similar to the flu jab, said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick.
He said: "It will all depend on how long the protective immune response lasts after the booster jab and what happens to the levels of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the population over the next year.
"It is likely that an annual booster jab will be necessary particularly to protect the most vulnerable.
"This would be similar to the annual flu jab. Indeed, the Covid jab could be given at the same time."
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New Health Secretary Sajid Javid recently confirmed the Government is considering whether to give a booster vaccine for Covid along with the flu jab over the winter.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, had earlier said he anticipates that coronavirus jabs will "probably" be needed on an annual basis "for, I don't know, at least five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years".
Professor Young added: "A booster jab later in the year will give the immune system a jolt that will re-stimulate the coronavirus-specific immune response.
"A booster jab with a modified vaccine that is better matched to common virus variants may also provide improved protection."
Dr Sean Elias, a scientist at Oxford University's Jenner Institute and a member of its Covid-19 vaccine team, said experts around the world are working to find out how long protection lasts after two doses.
He said: "We, and all the developers, continue to follow up with people who’ve been vaccinated to try to find out.
"It’s not always true that we need repeat booster vaccinations; with other diseases, some vaccines can protect us for our lifetime, others a decade, but some may only last a few years."
A young woman received a Covid vaccine in Blackburn, Lancashire
The efficacy of a 'standard' booster jab against new variants will depend on what has changed in the variant, he added.
He said: "We need to understand the nature of each variant, and the immune responses required to generate a level of protection, before we can decide if any tweaks are needed to the next round of booster vaccinations.
"A successful variant booster vaccination should provide additional protection against the new variants in addition to maintaining an immune response to other variants covered by the original vaccine.
"It is possible we won’t need to change the vaccine to boost against every variant.
"We continue to work closely with our partners AstraZeneca to ensure that we are prepared to produce any new versions of the vaccine for booster shots quickly."
Tara Hurst, a biomedical sciences lecturer at Birmingham City University, said a booster jab could be required six to 12 months after the second dose.
Existing vaccines are likely to offer at least some protection against current variants, she added.
Ms Hurst said: “What is not yet known is the duration of the immune response provoked by the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines after the doses have been given.
“It is common for immunity to wane over time in terms of decreasing antibody concentrations.
“’Over time’ is a deliberately vague phrase since this can be over six months or over six decades. Multiple jabs and exposure to the virus in the community can help to keep the response ‘topped up’.
The UK has ordered more than 500 million doses of eight vaccines
(Image: Andy Commins/Daily Mirror)
“It is possible that a third jab of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines could enhance this response further or reboot a declining immune response.
“The time since the vaccines became available is quite short and so it is still an open question whether a boost will be needed or if the duration and potency of the immune response will remain high enough to offer protection in the long run.”
The UK has ordered more than 500 million doses of eight vaccines, with three rolled out so far: Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna.
Johnson & Johnson's single-dose Janssen vaccine has been approved by the medicines regulator and will be used later this year.
Professor Young said the UK's jab supply is in "good shape."
It is not known if an Oxford-AstraZeneca booster is needed at the moment, a new study found
(Image: Press Association Images)
A recent study found that the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine induces a “strong” immune boost against coronavirus and its variants.
But the study's senior author, Professor Teresa Lambe, said it is not known if a third dose of the vaccine is needed at the moment.
Pfizer has said immunity from its jab wanes after six months and it believes a third dose "may be beneficial" within six to 12 months after the second jab to "maintain highest levels of protection".
A Pfizer spokesperson added: "While neutralising antibodies may decrease over time, our analysis shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine continues to be effective against Covid-19 through six months."
Until there is a drop in circulation of the virus, it is likely that a third dose will be needed, subject to approval by regulators, the pharmaceutical giant said.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved for use in the UK
(Image: Press Association Images)
In the UK's £20 million world-first trial, almost 3,000 fully-vaccinated people aged 30 and older were due to receive booster jabs at 18 NHS sites.
Seven vaccines – AstraZeneca, CureVac, Janssen from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer and Valneva – were tested.
Experts were tasked with checking whether the jabs boost immunity, if there were side effects and how the vaccines respond to variants.
The NHS in England is starting to plan a coronavirus booster jab programme for millions of people most vulnerable to the virus, according to a letter to senior leaders, GPs and hospital bosses.
The campaign is expected to take place between September 6 and December 17.
If a booster programme is needed, the priority groups cover about 32 million people including over-50s, those aged 16-49 in a Covid at-risk group, health and care workers, and the clinically extremely vulnerable, according to interim guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Final guidance is expected before September.