The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advises the UK government on this year’s COVID-19 spring vaccine programme, prioritising vulnerable groups, extending eligibility to ages 6 months and above.

T o fortify the nation’s defence against COVID-19, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has unveiled its strategic counsel to the government for the upcoming spring vaccine programme.

Just as in previous spring and autumn campaigns, JCVI’s directive centres on extending the shield to those most susceptible to severe disease and who stand to gain the most from vaccination. The overarching goal remains steadfast: to mitigate the impact of the virus on public health.

Key recipients

JCVI underscores the importance of prioritising specific groups this spring. The focus includes:

▪ adults aged 75 and over,

▪ residents in care homes for older adults,

▪ individuals aged 6 months and above who are immunosuppressed.

This nuanced approach adapts previous advice, now extending eligibility to those as young as 6 months, a crucial amendment in light of evolving circumstances.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chair of COVID-19 immunisation on the JCVI, emphasised the programme’s focal point — individuals at the highest risk of severe illness. He underscores the enduring efficacy of current vaccines, urging all eligible individuals to seize the spring offer for an additional layer of protection.

“The COVID-19 spring programme will continue to focus on those at greatest risk of getting seriously ill, who will benefit the most from a further vaccine dose.

“It is important that everyone who is eligible takes up the offer this spring. Current vaccines provide good protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and can protect those most vulnerable from death.”

Dr Mary Ramsay, Director of Public Health Programmes at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), underscored the severity of COVID-19, especially among older age groups and the immunosuppressed.

“Our on-going surveillance shows that COVID-19 continues to cause severe illness, particularly in older age groups and those who are immunosuppressed, but also clearly shows that spring and autumn vaccines are effective in helping to protect those most at risk – halving the likelihood of hospitalisation from the virus.

“I urge everyone who is eligible to take up the offer of a vaccine as soon as possible once invited – it will help improve your immunity to COVID-19, which does wane over time.”
— COVID vaccine: a shield that stands the test of time.

Last year’s programme

The dynamic nature of the virus requires ongoing adaptation, highlighted by the declining immunity over time. Updated advice reflects the need to vaccinate children aged 6 months to 4 years in a clinical risk group.

It is necessary to reflect on last year’s spring programme, where vaccine uptake for those aged 75 and over reached 67.5%. UKHSA’s surveillance data from the last spring programme shows that those vaccinated were approximately 50% less likely to be hospitalised with COVID-19, underscoring the tangible impact of vaccination in reducing severe outcomes.

New COVID defenders

In the dynamic dance with viral variants, the spring 2024 vaccine programme introduces the latest monovalent Omicron vaccines as the preferred safeguard. Notably, the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA (Comirnaty) Omicron XBB.1.5 vaccine, the Moderna’s mRNA (Spikevax) XBB.1.5 vaccine, the Novavax Matrix-M (Nuvaxovid) adjuvanted vaccine, the HIPRA bivalent (Bimervax) vaccine.

Beyond Spring 2024

Despite progress, COVID-19’s seasonality remains difficult to predict. Infection with SARS-CoV-2 persists throughout the year, with winter posing, obviously, the most significant threat.

JCVI pledges ongoing vigilance, promising reviews on the optimal timing and frequency of COVID-19 vaccination roll-out.

Present vaccines excel in shielding against severe COVID-19 outcomes, such as hospitalisation and mortality. However, their efficacy against mild cases from highly transmissible variants is limited in duration. Understanding these nuances becomes crucial in shaping future routine vaccination strategies for specific groups, including healthcare workers and those in close contact with immunosuppressed individuals.

However, it is important to understand what the JCVI announcement means for immunosuppressed households: they will face increased risk due to their weakened immune systems, while those unable to afford private vaccinations will experience growing inequalities.

Healthcare appointments will also become riskier for the most vulnerable patients.

The truth is, the government should increase the frequency and number of people being vaccinated due to the waning of protection provided by vaccination. It is crucial to prioritise public health by ensuring that a larger portion of the population receives vaccinations regularly. This approach would help to maintain and enhance immunity levels, effectively reducing the risk of outbreaks and the spread of COVID.

By vaccinating more people more frequently, the government can safeguard public health and prevent future outbreaks, not by vaccinating less.

PMP Magazine



▪ This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 7 February 2024.
Cover: Unsplash/Daniel Schludi. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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