Researchers are working to establish whether the flu jab and a Covid vaccine can be given at the same time, as the NHS braces itself for a potential surge in cases of flu this winter.
Giving the two shots at the same time could save precious resources for the NHS by avoiding millions of unnecessary appointments, experts said.
“It isn’t actually that difficult to give two injections at the same time – we do this in children all the time – but organising totally different visits has a massive implication in terms of resources and time and so on,” said Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at Bristol Medical School and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Since the start of the pandemic, lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing have reduced the risk of contracting not only Covid but other respiratory bugs as well, such as the flu – cases of which were basically non-existent last winter, according to surveillance data largely encompassing England compiled by the Royal College of GPs.
Assuming that many of these measures are lifted in the coming months, a resurgence of flu viruses is expected.
“I think we absolutely expect that contact rates will not be as low this coming winter as they were last winter. Restrictions will not be as heavy and, as a result, there will be a flu epidemic,” said Graham Medley, a professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who chairs the Sage sub-group on pandemic modelling.
“And because of the fact we didn’t have one last winter, that might be a bit larger, or a lot larger, and I think that’s something that focus will turn to as much as Covid in the future.”
The ComFluCov study is looking at what side-effects people get when they are given a recommended flu vaccine alongside either the Oxford/AstraZeneca or the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, as well as the immune responses when the two shots are co-administered.
Finn said early results on the side-effects when two jabs are given together had been shared with the JCVI. However, the official results are expected by August or September, said the study’s chief investigator, Dr Rajeka Lazarus, a consultant in infectious diseases and microbiology at University hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS foundation trust.
For now, the study is looking at the impact of giving the second Covid dose alongside a flu vaccine, but further research may be needed if a subsequent “booster” Covid shot is required, she said.
Finn said there was a “reasonably strong possibility” that both the Covid and flu jabs could be administered in one appointment either this autumn, or as part of a programme to administer Covid booster shots early next year, or even both.
The big question facing researchers on the ComFluCov study is whether the side-effects produced by giving both jabs together are worse than when they are given on their own. Another key question is whether the immunity provided by the two jabs changes when they are administered at the same time.
One concern is that the immune system could respond to one vaccine more than the other, said Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “So you might get a very good response to the Covid vaccine, let’s say, but not a very good one to the flu [jab] – or the other way around. And so that could be a problem.” Alternatively, getting the jabs at the same time might boost the immune response to both, he added.
Novavax – a Covid vaccine developer that recently published successful late-stage data on its jab – examined in a study that has yet to be peer reviewed whether its vaccine could be given in tandem with an influenza vaccine. Data showed that co-administering the jabs resulted in no change to influenza vaccine immune response, while a minor reduction in antibody responses, from 89.8% to 87.5%, was found for the Covid vaccine.
Novavax and Moderna are also in the early stages of developing a combined Covid and flu vaccine.