Britain could face another year-and-a-half of Covid misery despite a hugely successful vaccination drive, scientists have warned on the back of data showing immunity from booster jabs starts to fade after just 10 weeks.
Early real-world analysis of the UK’s immunisation scheme shows the efficacy of Pfizer’s top-up dose at preventing symptoms drops to as low as 35 per cent two-and-a-half months after getting a third dose, among people already given a full course of AstraZeneca.
But immunity levels appear stable at around 70 per cent after the same period of time for people already dosed up with Pfizer and then given a Moderna booster, even though they plunge to somewhere in the region of 45 per cent for a third dose of Pfizer.
Britain is already considering dishing out a fourth jab because of the data showing immunity fades quickly after a booster. It would bring the UK in line with Israel, which today began tests into whether a second round of boosters would help the most vulnerable.
But No10’s jab advisers are waiting for more data laying bare how well the vaccines protect against serious illness before pressing ahead with another inoculation drive. Two jabs still drastically cut the risk of hospitalisation even against Omicron, and a third is expected to bolster that further.
It means a fourth dose may not be necessary yet for the entirety of the UK and could see ministers only advised to dish out extra doses to the elderly and immunocompromised in the coming months, even if an annual vaccination drive is eventually signed off for all adults.
One of the Government’s own advisers warned it would be impossible to ‘defeat’ Covid with vaccines if everyone needed a top-up every three months. It would see the NHS have to dish out the equivalent of up to 50million jabs every 90 days, or around 550,000 every day.
This would put the cost of an annual vaccination drive in the region of £4billion, based on one jab being priced at around £20 per dose — similar to Pfizer.
Universal Covid jabs — which experts hope will offer better protection and hold up against variants that emerge in the future — aren’t expected for another 18 months, England chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told MPs earlier this month.
Analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) revealed immunity gained from third Covid jabs fades quicker against Omicron than Delta. The graph shows its finding that adults who received two AstraZeneca doses, plus a Pfizer or Moderna booster, are 60 per cent less likely to get symptoms than the unvaccinated if they catch Omicron up to four weeks after their third jab. But after ten weeks, efficacy drops to 35 per cent for Pfizer and 45 per cent for Moderna
UKHSA data shows that those who received Pfizer for all three of their doses saw their protection levels increase to around 70 per cent for two weeks after their top-up dose before falling to around 45 per cent 10 weeks later. People given two AstraZeneca vaccines and a Moderna booster were the most protected, according to the report, with efficacy sitting at 75 per cent against Omicron and lasting for at least nine weeks
Israel, which became the first country in the world to rollout booster jabs, today began trialling fourth doses of Covid jabs to 150 hospital staff to gather data on whether the extra shot is beneficial and is preparing to offer the injection to over-60s. Pictured: an Israeli man receiving a fourth dose of the Pfizer at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv on December 27
Professor James Naismith, director of national research centre the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said until these jabs are available in around mid-2023, Omicron and Delta could ‘continue to circulate’ and cause waves that potentially pile pressure on the NHS and lead ministers to contemplate bringing in legal restrictions.
And there is also the chance another variant emerges in the meantime that could cause even more chaos, experts fear.
Professor Naismith told MailOnline: ‘Double vaccination against Delta whilst providing protection against serious illness does not give protection against infection with Omicron.
‘An Omicron-specific vaccine would be expected to provide more protection against infection with Omicron but perhaps not Delta.
‘A polyvalent vaccine which protects against multiple strains could solve this problem.’ It could also thwart other variants that emerge in the future, in theory.
Vaccine makers have been quietly working on as polyvalent Covid jabs but they are all in early development and way off clinical trials.
In the meantime, new antivirals are expected to reduce illness and death, administering jabs to the unvaccinated will make a ‘tremendous difference’ and improving ventilation in schools and workplaces can reduce transmission, Professor Naismith said.
Britain’s use of AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine ‘may be behind nation’s recent low death toll ‘
Britain’s use of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine in vulnerable people may be behind the country’s lower death toll compared to Europe in recent months, according to the former boss of No10’s vaccine taskforce.
Clive Dix claimed the durable cellular immunity response produced by the UK-made jab can potentially ‘last for life’.
The vaccine was approved towards the end of December 2020, and jabs were initially rolled out among the older and the most vulnerable in society.
Mr Dix told The Daily Telegraph: ‘If you look across Europe, with the rise in cases, there’s also a corresponding lagged rise in deaths, but not in the UK, and we have to understand that.
‘I personally believe that’s because most of our vulnerable people were given the AstraZeneca vaccine.’
Mr Dix told the newspaper: ‘We’ve seen early data that the Oxford jab produces a very durable cellular response and if you’ve got a durable cellular immunity response then they can last for a long time.
‘It can last for life in some cases.’
AstraZeneca has faced both praise and criticism during the pandemic, with its Covid jab hailed as being one of the first on the market and for its low cost in comparison to other jabs.
Its rollout in the UK saw Government advisers recommend that under-40s be offered alternatives due to evidence it may be linked to very rare blood clots.
But he warned the ‘biggest uncertainty’ is Covid itself, as the virus ‘has a tendency to behave in ways we cannot yet predict’.
Analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) revealed immunity gained from third Covid jabs fades quicker against Omicron than Delta.
Its surveillance report shows adults who received two AstraZeneca doses, plus a Pfizer or Moderna booster, are 60 per cent less likely to get symptoms than the unvaccinated if they catch Omicron up to four weeks after their third jab.
But after ten weeks, efficacy drops to 35 per cent for Pfizer and 45 per cent for Moderna.
Meanwhile, those who received Pfizer for all three of their doses saw their protection levels increase to around 70 per cent for two weeks after their top-up dose before falling to around 45 per cent 10 weeks later.
People given two AstraZeneca vaccines and a Moderna booster were the most protected, according to the report, with efficacy sitting at 75 per cent against Omicron and lasting for at least nine weeks.
Officials don’t reveal exactly how many of each jab have been dished out as booster doses, but the UK programme is heavily dependent on Pfizer. Britain has already bought another 60million Moderna and 54million Pfizer doses for inoculation campaigns in 2022 and 2023.
The UKHSA, which calculated the preliminary efficacy figures based on nearly 70,000 Omicron cases, didn’t offer an explanation for the drop in performance.
But the current crop of vaccines were made in response to the original strain, first identified in Wuhan, so as the virus continues to mutate, the jabs could become less effective.
Protection against symptomatic Covid also isn’t the primary goal of the current jabs, with policymakers worldwide instead relying on them to drastically cut the odds of people needing hospital treatment or dying.
Scientists expect protection against hospitalisation and death to last much longer even with Omicron, which has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein — the part of the virus cell that the vaccines recognise and trigger an immune response against.
This is because the vaccines stimulate other parts of the immune system that come into play when a virus takes hold, such as T cells.
However, even small reductions in vaccine efficacy against severe disease could dramatically increase the number of vaccinated people who will fall seriously unwell.
No10’s scientists previously warned that if Omicron reduces jab effectiveness against hospitalisation from 96 to 92 per cent the number of vaccinated people not protected from hospitalisation ‘would effectively double’.
Government advisers originally recommended boosters were given six months after people received their second dose because the wait was considered to be a ‘sweet spot’.
But this dosing interval was halved in the face of Omicron, with ministers fearing the NHS could be overwhelmed even with the vast majority of over-50s fully vaccinated.
Dr Peter English, former chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said at the time of the decision that there may be a ‘trade-off between getting people immune quickly and getting the best possible immune response’.
Longer waits between jabs ‘generally lead to a better immune response’ but there is unlikely to be a big immunological difference between a three and six month interval, he added.
ENGLAND: The ONS Covid-19 Infection Survey estimates around 1.5million people had Covid on any given day in the week leading up to December 19. The figure was up 65 per cent on the previous week
Professor Whitty this month told MPs on the Health and Social Care Select Committee that Britain faces 18 months of Covid restrictions before vaccines and medicines are available that can squash the threat from Covid.
He said polyvalent vaccines should be ready in mid-2023 that will cover a ‘much wider range’ of Covid variants and by which point the UK will be armed with ‘several antivirals’ that can be given to those who catch the virus to stop them becoming seriously unwell.
At this point ‘the great majority, and probably almost all of the heavy lifting’ can be done by medical interventions, Professor Whitty said.
But until that point, it is unclear how Britain’s vaccine strategy will evolve.
Israel, which was the first country in the world to roll out booster jabs, today began trialling fourth doses of Covid jabs to 150 hospital staff to gather data on whether the extra shot is beneficial. The country is preparing to offer the injection to over-60s after the move was approved by scientists and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said fourth doses, set to be given four months after a booster jab, will protect against Omicron.
A Government source told the Telegraph a fourth jab was ‘definitely a possibility’ in the UK but a decision from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is not expected until the new year.
JCVI member Professor Adam Finn said the move is ‘under review and discussion’ and there ‘may well be people who received their boosters early who are in the older or more vulnerable age groups who may need a further jab’.
He said it is ‘still very much in doubt’ whether everyone would be offered a fourth injection.
Clive Dix, the UK former vaccine taskforce boss, yesterday said AstraZeneca’s jab may offer life-long protection to some people and praised it for keeping the UK’s death toll lower in comparison to European countries who relied on mRNA vaccines.
Studies have shown that AstraZeneca’s jab, which uses a more traditional vaccine technology, produces a greater T-cell response compared to mRNA jabs produced by Pfizer and Moderna, which have been favoured in Europe.
T-cells, which are more difficult to measure than antibodies, are thought to provide longer-lasting protection.
Britain is currently recording 1.7 Covid deaths per million people each day, according to an Oxford University-run data site.
By comparison, the equivalent figures in France and Germany stand between 2.5 and 3.5, even though the UK is recording thousands more cases each day.
Mr Dix told the Daily Telegraph: ‘If you look across Europe, with the rise in cases, there’s also a corresponding lagged rise in deaths, but not in the UK, and we have to understand that.
‘I personally believe that’s because most of our vulnerable people were given the AstraZeneca vaccine.
‘We’ve seen early data that the Oxford jab produces a very durable cellular response and if you’ve got a durable cellular immunity response then they can last for a long time. It can last for life in some cases.’