Ministers have started ordering vaccines for a booster campaign in autumn 2022, with Pfizer reportedly being asked to supply the UK with a further 35m doses.
The government has still not give the final go-ahead for the vaccine booster programme expected this autumn, but it is understood to have placed the order with Pfizer despite the company raising its prices.
According to a report in the Times (paywall), the government is paying £22 a dose – compared with an earlier price of £18 a dose – because global demand is pushing up prices. The EU has signed a contract with Pfizer to buy 900m doses, with an option to buy the same amount again.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not deny the story on Wednesday. It said it did not comment on commercial vaccine supply arrangements, but it also said it was confident it would have enough vaccine to “support potential booster programmes in the future”.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, confirmed this week that he expected this year’s vaccine booster programme to start “in early September”. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has not yet given its final advice, but in an interim recommendation in June it said that, if boosters were offered, they should go to the over-50s, other at-risk adults, and adults living with people who are immunosuppressed.
There are more than 30 million people in these groups and, if the full booster programme goes ahead, they are expected to be offered mostly Pfizer or Moderna jabs. Most over-40s have been already been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and there is some evidence that a “mix and match” approach to top-up vaccines may be more effective.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We have secured access to more than 500m doses of Covid-19 vaccines and we are confident our supply will support potential booster programmes in the future. The potential booster programme will be based on the final advice of the independent JCVI.”
Although there appears to be broad public support for a vaccine booster programme, within the scientific community there are doubts whether it is needed, or whether it can be justified in the light of the very low vaccination rates in the developing world.
On Wednesday, Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the JCVI, told BBC Breakfast that although some immunosuppressed people would almost certainly need a booster this autumn, there was still some doubt as to whether all over-50s would need to be included in the programme.
“We need to review evidence as to whether people who receive vaccines early on in the programme are in any serious risk of getting serious disease and whether the protection they’ve got from those first two doses is still strong,” he said. “We clearly don’t want to be giving vaccines to people that don’t need them.”
On Tuesday, Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group that developed the AstraZeneca jab, told MPs a booster programme would be needed if the protection provided by vaccines started to wane, and that so far the evidence did not show this was happening.
He also said having a booster programme in the UK could result in fewer vaccines being available for the developing world. He said that for people in Britain to be getting three doses, while people in many parts of the world had not had one, would highlight “a moral failure”.
He continued: “There’s also the messaging, because that says to other countries, ‘well if the UK needs three doses, we need three doses’. And so that has a huge implication for sucking even more doses out of the system.”