Britain’s autumn Covid vaccination campaign will use a new omicron-specific jab as default after the country became the first in the world to authorise a variant vaccine.
The next stage of the rollout will see 26 million people invited to get a fresh dose, starting in September, with the over-50s, healthcare workers and the vulnerable all eligible.
Officials at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Monday authorised Moderna’s bivalent vaccine, which combines the original form of the Covid vaccine with a version tailored for omicron, currently the dominant strain.
Half of the dose is the original and the other half the genetic code to target omicron, providing protection against both.
The Joint Committee for Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) has said that Moderna’s omicron vaccine will be the default option throughout the autumn campaign.
Should there be supply issues then older versions will be used, with the most vulnerable prioritised for the new jab. The older doses, health experts say, still provide excellent protection against severe disease and death.
The MHRA is currently reviewing Pfizer’s omicron booster jab and a decision is expected soon. If this receives MHRA approval, it is understood that it will be given ahead of the old jabs and sit alongside the new Moderna vaccine as a preferred option.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chair of Covid-19 immunisation on the JCVI, said: “All of the available booster vaccines offer very good protection against severe illness from Covid-19.
“As more vaccines continue to be developed and approved, the JCVI will consider the benefits of including them in the UK programme.
“It is important that everyone who is eligible takes up a booster this autumn, whichever vaccine is on offer.”
Data published in June show the two-in-one vaccine gives just as good a protection against omicron as the first jab did against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2.
Deliveries set to begin in next two weeks
Moderna is confident that it will be able to meet demand, having stockpiled hundreds of millions of doses over the last few months as the data were scrutinised by health experts around the world.
Darius Hughes, the Moderna UK general manager, told The Telegraph: “We’ll be shipping it in the next couple of weeks, and it will be available for the autumn-winter booster campaign.
“We will be working now with the vaccines taskforce and with UK Health Security Agency and our NHS partners so that we can begin deliveries of this new bivalent vaccine within the next couple of weeks so the NHS has it available to give to the UK public some time beginning mid-September, depending on when they choose to deploy.”
The UK ordered 29 million doses of vaccine from Moderna for 2022 and 13 million are still due before the end of the year, the BBC reported. The remainder of the order is set to be fulfilled with the new jab, The Telegraph understands.
In July, the JCVI announced that a Covid booster jab would be offered from September alongside the seasonal flu vaccine rollout, which has been brought forward to get ahead of what is expected to be a particularly bad winter for respiratory viruses.
Should there be unexpected supply problems from Moderna, the most vulnerable will be prioritised for a jab. The older doses, health experts say, still provide excellent protection against severe disease and death.
‘Important role to play in protecting people’
Prof Wei Shen Lim said: “All of the available booster vaccines offer very good protection against severe illness from Covid-19. As more vaccines continue to be developed and approved, the JCVI will consider the benefits of including them in the UK programme.”
Moderna data show that people boosted with the omicron vaccine had high levels of antibodies in their blood, recording a geometric mean titre score of 941. Moderna’s original vaccine produced about 1,000 units against the Wuhan form of the virus.
Stephane Bancel, the Moderna chief executive, said the new guise of the mRNA vaccine “has consistently shown superior breadth of immune response” when compared to the original form of the vaccine first made in 2020.
“This bivalent vaccine has an important role to play in protecting people in the UK from Covid-19 as we enter the winter months,” he added.
There is no evidence yet that the vaccine will be any more or less effective at stopping transmission.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, said: “Vaccines remain our best defence against Covid, and this safe and effective vaccine will broaden immunity and potentially improve protections against some variants as we learn to live with this virus.”
Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at UKHSA, said: “By taking up the booster vaccine this autumn, you will increase your protection ahead of the winter months, when respiratory viruses are typically at their peak.”