MILLIONS of Brits could get Covid booster vaccines this autumn to help fight off a mutant-fuelled winter surge.
A top government vaccination adviser has said a top-up jab is likely, with the elderly and vulnerable given priority.
🦠 Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates...Elderly Brits are 'to get Covid booster jabs by autumn' to fight off mutant-fuelled winter surgeCredit: Getty Images - Getty
Anthony Harnden, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said the third jab would be needed to protect against a new variant or as a safety net as the duration of protection is unknown.
Speaking on The BMJ’s Talk Evidence podcast, he said: "We certainly don’t want to see a winter like we’ve seen this winter.
"And if we’ve got new variants circulating and we’ve got dropping levels of immunity due to the vaccination, then that becomes an imperative to do a booster."
He said the booster could be given to certain vulnerable groups or even the entire population.
And he suggested it could be rolled out in August or September "rather than later in the year, because of this worry about a large third wave affecting the vulnerable elderly".
Mr Harnden added: "I think we’re likely to make a bold decision to recommend a booster dose, even if we haven’t got all the evidence of the necessity, just because I think the consequences of not immunising with the booster dose are so big.
"If it’s proved that it’s needed months later it may be too late."
During the interview, Mr Harnden also said that Covid-19 jabs could become an annual occurrence, just like the flu programme.
He added: "I suspect it’s going to be likely that we’re going to require an annual boost for a while.
"It just depends on the length of duration of protection. The virus mutates, [but it] probably doesn’t mutate as much or as quickly as the influenza virus, so it’s very difficult to predict whether this is going to be an annual vaccine or for how many years.
"But I certainly think it’s going to be a booster shot this year."Booster jabs could be given to certain vulnerable groups or even the entire populationCredit: London News Pictures A total of 25,216,857 Covid-19 jabs have taken place in England between December 8 and March 12
Around 7,000 people die from flu every year, but this can be up to 20,000 in a bad year, according to Professor Chris Whitty.
These numbers, on top of rising Covid cases over the winter period, could be devastating.
Ministers have already discussed plans for top-up jabs that NHS chiefs hope can be distributed at the same time as winter flu shots.
The extra vaccination could be dispensed by high street pharmacists during the winter flu season if only the most vulnerable require it.
If all adults need another jab, vaccination centres could be used to again to aid mass administration.
But the Government will have to decide which strain to target first.
Last month a study of around 2,000 patients found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may not prevent mild illnesses brought on by the South African variant.
Scientists believe that even if the vaccine has the ability to stop severe illness from the mutation, it will not be able to stop transmission of it.
Autumn vaccines may be needed if the "surge testing" programme is unable to halt the spread of the variant.
Lead researcher in the Oxford camp, Professor Sarah Gilbert, said current vaccines "have a reduction in efficacy against some of the variant viruses".
She told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "What that is looking like is that we may not be reducing the total number of cases but there’s still protection in that case against deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.
"Maybe we won’t be reducing the number of cases as much, but we still won’t be seeing the deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.
"That’s really important for healthcare systems, even if we are having mild and asymptomatic infections to prevent people going into hospital with Covid would have a major effect."If all adults need another jab, vaccination centres could be reopened to aid mass administrationCredit: London News Pictures UK Covid deaths have fallen by 23% in a week with 5,534 more infections recorded
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi and deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam predict that "probably an annual or a booster in the autumn and then an annual vaccination" could be required.
Mr Zahawi has said it would follow a similar route to flu vaccinations, where international variants are identified and a suitable vaccination is produced to "protect the nation".
Britain's vaccine rollout is world-leading, with all adults on track to be vaccinated by early June - beating the EU by two months.
The Government is set to smash its target of immunising the entire adult population by the end of July, as the bloc struggles with a third wave of infections and a sluggish jab rollout.
Research company Airfinity estimates that the EU will reach the same milestone by the end of August, dealing another blow to the bloc’s economic recovery.
A total of 25,216,857 Covid-19 jabs have taken place in England between December 8 and March 12, according to provisional NHS England data.
Of this number, 23,684,103 were the first dose of a vaccine, a rise of 457,254 on the previous day, while 1,532754 were a second dose, an increase of 69,680.
Meanwhile, UK Covid deaths have fallen by 46% in two weeks after the lowest Saturday rise since October.
A total of 121 Brits have died in the past 24 hours, the lowest daily figure in six months, bringing the UK death toll to 125,464.
It means coronavirus deaths have plummeted by nearly half in just 14 days, with 226 deaths reported on this day two weeks ago.
And it is the lowest daily rise in deaths since October 12 2020 when 131 were reported.
Latest data shows 5,534 new coronavirus cases have been recorded - down nine per cent in a week with 6,040 cases reported last Saturday, March 6.
Nadhim Zahawi discusses surge of 10 million extra jabs available to the UK