The amount of people being hospitalised with Covid is expected to rise over the summer, the UK Health Security Agency has said.
Covid infections have increased by around 500,000 in the past week, according to survey data by the Office for National Statistics, with cases being driven by the two faster-spreading sub-variants of the Omicron variant, BA.4 and BA.5.
Almost 9,000 hospital beds in England were occupied with Covid patients on June 30, a doubling of admissions within a month, the BBC reports.
Meanwhile, an estimated one in 30 of us has the virus, leading to renewed calls for booster jabs from some health experts. Dr Quinton Fivelman, chief scientific officer at the London Medical Laboratory, is among them.
“With cases up across the UK, and hospitalisations climbing, we are facing a new wave, fuelled by the spread of the latest Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants,” says Dr Fivelman. “Clearly, this is now more than a ‘Jubilee jump’ surge caused by the Bank Holiday gatherings; it’s a marked trend.”
Dame Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “It doesn’t look as though that wave has finished yet, so we would anticipate that hospital cases will rise.”
She said: “For this particular wave we have some evidence there may be some slight reduction of the effectiveness of vaccines on variants, but they are still maintaining the majority of people, keeping them safe from severe disease and out of hospital.”
While Dr Harries said the UKHSA was encouraging the public to “go about their normal lives” but in a “precautionary way”, Dr Fivelman has called for a summer jab programme offering over-50s a fourth jab to protect against severe disease.
So, where are we currently with the booster jabs?
What booster jabs are currently available?
Those over the age of 16 are already eligible for their two initial Covid jabs and a booster, with a further spring booster campaign offering a fourth shot to over-75s, care home residents, and over-12s who have weakened immune systems.
While the current vaccine is not very effective at preventing Omicron infections, it does reduce the risk of severe disease. And with the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of Omicron pushing up cases and hospitalisations, Dr Harries, has called on anyone over 75 who have not yet had their spring booster to take up the jab.
What’s happening with Omicron specific booster jabs?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week that Pfizer and Moderna are continuing to develop Omicron specific booster shots, which will be ready in autumn 2022.
Both companies have started creating booster jabs based on Omicron’s BA.1 and BA.2 subvariants and the FDA is now encouraging them to develop new booster jabs that will target the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.
Moderna’s updated Covid vaccine is a combination of jabs that produces spike proteins from both the original Wuhan strain of coronavirus and the first Omicron variant, BA.1. Pfizer has meanwhile created a similar Omicron-specific vaccine, which produces spike proteins only for the BA.1 Omicron variant.
In the UK, both vaccines will assessed for their safety, quality and effectiveness by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). If approved, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will then advise which jab will be used in the autumn booster programme in the UK.
What is the UK’s plan for autumn boosters?
As well as the current wave, health experts are predicting another wave of Covid in the autumn, as we spend more time inside where Covid is likely to circulate.
In May, the JCVI recommended that the government plan for an autumn booster rollout. Under its interim advice, boosters would be offered to residents and staff at care homes, frontline health and social care workers, anyone aged 65 and over, and at-risk adults aged 16 to 64 – a total of around 25 million people.
The exact start date of the autumn rollout will be announced closer to the time, but is expected to begin in September, with those eligible likely to be encouraged to book online, as with previous vaccine appointments.
Why are there calls for an earlier booster for over 50s?
With rising Covid cases, Dr Quinton Fivelman believes that all Brits aged over 50 should receive a fourth jab to ease pressure on hospitals, minimise the chances of long Covid, and reduce the risk of new Omicron mutations.
“The latest research shows BA.4 and BA.5 appear to be able to infect people even if they’ve recently had other types of Omicron,” says Dr Fivelman.
“Our natural immune systems are having difficulty in keeping the latest variants at bay. For this reason, it’s vital people have as high a level of antibodies as possible to protect against severe disease.”
Though not specifically targeted at the latest variants, a top-up jab would still protect against severe disease, ensuring effective antibodies and T cells.
“While the severity of many Omicron cases may be less marked than previous Covid variants, such as Delta, it can still be an extremely unpleasant and dangerous disease,” he says.