Covid vaccine rollout begins early in the UK with new variant under watch

In Europe

Covid-19 vaccination centre at a Chemist shop on 28th April 2023 in London, United Kingdom.

Mike Kemp | In Pictures | Getty Images

LONDON — England on Monday began its winter Covid-19 and flu vaccination campaign ahead of schedule as it monitors a new variant and seeks to avoid another “twindemic” straining the health-care system.

National Health Service (NHS) England said the program was brought forward based on the latest expert advice. Flu vaccines are available to all, while Covid vaccines will be offered to eligible groups including care home residents, over-65s, front-line health and social care workers and those at clinical risk.

The NHS added that last winter saw high occupancy in hospitals and “record pressure on staff” due to the combination of Covid and flu.

The early start was criticized by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for coming at short notice and potentially creating confusion for pharmacists and the public. Winter vaccination campaigns also begin this month in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with Wales starting last week.

The U.K. began to investigate a Covid variant with multiple genetic differences to its predecessors, BA.2.86, in August after it was linked to a “high attack rate” in an outbreak at a care home.

As of Sept. 4, 34 confirmed BA.2.86 cases had been identified in England, of which 28 were at the care home. Five cases resulted in hospitalization and none in death.

Research published Sept. 9 said the variant had not been proven to have a “growth advantage” compared with other variants in circulation. The U.K. Health Security Agency also said there was insufficient evidence to link it to early indicators of increased Covid-19 transmission in the U.K., or to judge its severity.

BA.2.86 has been informally refered to online as “Pirola.”

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“With concerns arising over new Covid variants, it’s vital we adapt the programme and bring it forward for those most at risk, and so I strongly urge everyone eligible to come forward as soon as they can for this important protection in colder months,” said Steve Russell, NHS director of vaccinations and screening.

Four Covid vaccines are in use in the U.K., from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Sanofi/GSK and Novavax.

Health care bodies around the world continue to monitor new Covid-19 variants and subvariants, as well as the efficacy of reformulated vaccines against them. The World Health Organization in August said it was monitoring a strain called EG.5, nicknamed “Eris,” which it said showed “growth advantage and immune escape properties” but no confirmed increase in severity.

Health experts believe reformulated Covid vaccines being rolled out in the U.S. this fall will provide protection against Eris, which is now the dominant strain there.

Both Eris and Pirola are subvariants of Omicron, which caused a spike in global cases in late 2021.

Unlike in the U.S., where Covid vaccine distribution is being shifted to the private sector, vaccines in the U.K. are only available through the state-owned NHS.

Other European nations are also set to begin winter vaccination campaigns this month.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU body, said in a Sept. 7 update that Covid-19 transmission signals had “increased from previously very low levels” in recent weeks.

It noted “sporadic detections” of BA.2.86 in the EU, which it said had a possibility of increasing reinfections due to its high divergence from currently-circulating variants. However, it said there was no indication it was associated with a “more severe disease or a reduction in vaccine effectiveness against severe disease.”

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