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UK begins Covid vaccine rollout early with new variant under surveillance

Covid-19 vaccination center at a pharmacy on April 28, 2023 in London, United Kingdom.

Mike Kemp | In pictures | Getty Images

LONDON — England began its winter vaccination campaign against Covid-19 and flu earlier than expected on Monday, as it monitors a new variant and seeks to avoid another “double epidemic” that is straining the health system.

The National Health Service (NHS) England said the scheme had been proposed based on the latest expert advice. Flu vaccines are available to everyone, while Covid vaccines will be offered to eligible groups including care home residents, over-65s, frontline health and social care workers and people at clinical risk.

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

This early start was criticized by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society because it occurred at very short notice and may have created confusion among pharmacists and the public. Winter vaccination campaigns also begin this month in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with Wales starting last week.

The UK began investigating a Covid variant with multiple genetic differences from its predecessors, BA.2.86, in August after it was linked to a “high attack rate” during a epidemic in a retirement home.

As of September 4, 34 confirmed cases of BA.2.86 had been identified in England, including 28 in the care home. Five cases resulted in hospitalization and no deaths.

A study published Saturday said the variant had not been proven to have a “growth advantage” over other circulating variants. The UK Health Security Agency also said there was not enough evidence to link it to early indicators of increased Covid-19 transmission in the UK, or to judge its severity.

BA.2.86 was informally referred to online as “Pirola”.

“With concerns over new Covid variants, it is vital that we adapt the scheme and deliver it to those most at risk, and I therefore strongly urge everyone eligible to come forward as soon as possible to benefit from this important protection during the colder months,” said Steve Russell, director of vaccinations and testing for the NHS.

Four Covid vaccines are in use in the UK, from Pfizer-BioNTech, ModernSanofi/GSK and Novavax.

Health organizations around the world continue to monitor new variants and sub-variants of Covid-19, as well as the effectiveness of reformulated vaccines against them. The World Health Organization said in August it was monitoring a strain called EG.5, nicknamed “Eris,” which it said had “growth advantage and immune evasion properties” but no increase confirmed its seriousness.

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Health experts believe reformulated Covid vaccines, rolling out in the United States this fall, will provide protection against Eris, which is now the dominant strain there.

Both Eris and Pirola are subvariants of omicron, which caused an increase in cases worldwide in late 2021.

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

Other European countries are also expected to launch winter vaccination campaigns this month.

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

He noted “sporadic detections” of BA.2.86 in the European Union, which he said could increase reinfections due to its sharp divergence from currently circulating variants. However, there is no evidence that this is associated with “more severe disease or reduced vaccine effectiveness against severe disease.”

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