UK to begin virus booster drive for over-50s next week

Signs are pictured at the entrance to the London Bridge Vaccination Centre as people receive doses of the coronavirus vaccine in London on Aug 9, 2021.
(TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)

WASHINGTON / ATHENS / PARIS / LONDON / BRUSSELS / ADDIS ABABA / BERLIN / JOHANNESBURG – The UK will offer COVID-19 booster shots to people 50 and over and other vulnerable groups, as the government aims to avert a potential coronavirus surge this winter.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Tuesday the government had accepted the advice of its vaccine committee and would go ahead with administering doses from next week. Under the plan for tackling the pandemic over the coming months in England, Javid said there will be a “plan A” focusing on booster vaccinations, flu shots and the test and trace system.

Meanwhile, all 12- to 15-year-olds in England will be offered a COVID-19 vaccine after top medical advisers said on Monday that children would benefit from reduced disruption to their education.

The British government confirmed that the offer would be extended to all children aged 12-15 after a unanimous recommendation by the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) from the four nations of the United Kingdom.

Rollout to the cohort in England will begin next week. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own health policy, though each devolved administration received the same advice from their respective CMO.

The CMOs recommended that children aged 12-15 in Britain get a first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) earlier this month decided against making the recommendation.

The children will be offered Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine. Vulnerable children in the age bracket were already eligible for the shots.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday will also unveil how Britain will roll out COVID-19 booster shots for the most vulnerable and elderly as part of his coronavirus strategy for the winter months.

Johnson's government has already indicated it will scrap plans for vaccine passports to be required to get into nightclubs, end some of its emergency COVID powers and use lockdowns only as a last resort.

Instead, Johnson will lean on vaccines and testing to try and contain COVID-19 heading into autumn and winter, including a booster program.

"The pandemic is far from over, but thanks to our phenomenal vaccine program, new treatments and testing we are able to live with the virus without significant restrictions on our freedoms," Johnson said in a statement.

Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 8,039,647 as of Monday afternoon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The Africa CDC, the specialized healthcare agency of the African Union, said the death toll from the pandemic across the continent stands at 203,608.

Belgium

Reluctant Belgian students are queuing up in droves to get vaccinated, ahead of plans by the Brussels regional government to make the health pass mandatory for accessing restaurants and bars in an effort to encourage young people to get their shots.

Brussels residents will be required from Oct 1 to show the pass in bars, restaurants and fitness clubs as well as at trade fairs to prove that they have been vaccinated or have recently tested negative for COVID-19.

In Brussels, only 44 percent of 18 to 24 years-old have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 71 percent in the neighbouring Belgian region of Wallonia. 

For kids aged between 12 to 17 years old, the rate falls to 30 percent, against 82 percent in Flanders, official data suggest.

The Brussels government has already approved the wider use of the health pass while Flanders and Wallonia, which have higher vaccination rates, have not yet decided whether to do the same.

In practice, it could mean that someone who is not vaccinated or tested could travel 10 minutes outside of Brussels and find themselves in Flanders grabbing a drink or a meal.

More than 8.2 million people in Belgium have now been fully vaccinated, or 72 percent of its 11 million population. Belgium has registered 1.2 million coronavirus cases and 25,500 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

A senior gets a third shot of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine during a campaign to give booster shots to the elderly over the age of 86, at the Bicentenario stadium in Santiago, Chile, Aug 11, 2021. (ESTEBAN FELIX / AP)

FDA and WHO on COVID-19 booster shots

Additional COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are not needed for the general population, leading scientists including two departing senior US Food and Drug Administration officials and several from the World Health Organization (WHO) said in an article published in a medical journal on Monday.

The scientists said more evidence was needed to justify boosters. That view disagrees with US government plans to begin offering another round of shots to many fully vaccinated Americans as soon as next week, contingent on approval from health regulators.

As COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant of the virus rise, President Joe Biden's administration is concerned that infections among those already vaccinated are a sign that their protection is waning and has pushed boosters as a way to rebuild immunity.

The WHO has argued that the vaccines are still needed for first doses around the globe.

"Any decisions about the need for boosting or timing of boosting should be based on careful analyses of adequately controlled clinical or epidemiological data, or both, indicating a persistent and meaningful reduction in severe disease," the scientists wrote in the Lancet medical journal.

The risk-benefit evaluation should consider the number of severe COVID-19 cases that boosting would be expected to prevent, and whether it is safe and effective against the current variants, they said.

"Current evidence does not, therefore, appear to show a need for boosting in the general population, in which efficacy against severe disease remains high," the scientists wrote.

The article's authors included the FDA Office of Vaccines Research and Review Director Marion Gruber and Deputy Director Phil Krause, both of whom plan to leave the agency in the next several months.

They acknowledged that some individuals, such as those who are immunocompromised, could benefit from an additional dose.

Broader use of boosters may be needed in the future if there is waning immunity to the primary vaccination or if new variants evolve so that the vaccines no longer protect against the virus, they said.

Boosters could also prove risky if introduced too soon or too frequently, the scientists wrote.

The article's authors included WHO top scientists Soumya Swaminathan, Ana-Maria Henao-Restrepo and Mike Ryan.

"Current vaccine supplies could save more lives if used in previously unvaccinated populations," the authors wrote.

A medical staff takes care of a COVID-19 patient at the intensive care unit of the hospital Les Abymes (Centre hospitalier universitaire) in Pointe-a-Pitre, on the French Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe, on Aug 6, 2021. (CEDRICK ISHAM CALVADOS / AFP)

France

France’s health regulator ANSM is advising people who received the Janssen vaccine, which is given as a single dose, to get a second jab with an mRNA-type vaccine – Pfizer or Moderna. 

The recommendation comes after France, which has administered about 1 million doses of J&J’s Janssen vaccine so far, has seen 32 breakthroughs, 29 of which were severe cases, according to a report from ANSM Monday. 

Four people died of COVID-19 after getting the vaccine, the regulator said. ANSM is conducting further investigations.

Separately, the number of French patients in hospital with COVID-19 fell below 10,000 again for the first time since mid-August, health ministry data showed on Monday.

The patient tally went down by 26 to 9,986, while the number of deaths in hospital increased by 86 to 88,862.

On Sunday, the seven-day moving average of new infections fell below 10,000 for the first time since July 20, as the number of new daily new cases stayed below 10,000 for the third day in a row. 

ALSO READ: WHO warns of increasing risk of virus variants evading vaccines

Germany

Germany may increase restrictions on people who aren’t inoculated against COVID-19 if contagion rates climb and health-care facilities get stretched, said Helge Braun, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff.

“We’re looking very closely at the situation in the hospitals, if operations would be canceled – for instance, an inoculated person can’t have hip surgery because beds need to be reserved for additional corona patients – then we’d have to consider whether further measures are necessary,” he said in an interview with ntv television.

That could mean restricting privileges for unvaccinated people, Braun said, adding that Germany is in a good position and that the goal of the ongoing vaccination “action week” is to prevent a fourth wave in fall and winter. 

To counter the slowdown in the COVID-19 vaccine take-up, Germany started a national "vaccine action week" on Monday, offering jabs free of charge and without an appointment at easily accessible public sites.

"All over the country, people are rolling up their sleeves," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a video message on Sunday. "At volunteer fire brigade stations, in trams, on the football pitch, in mosques – it has never been easier to get a vaccine."

On Tuesday, the contagion rate declined slightly to 81.1 infections per 100,000 people over the past seven days. About two-thirds of the population has had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The number of daily administered COVID-19 vaccine doses in Germany has been declining in recent months, with only 61,079 shots given on Sunday, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases. The number of vaccine doses administered per day was the highest in early June, at over 1.4 million.

As of Monday, almost 51.8 million people in Germany have been fully vaccinated, bringing the country's vaccination rate to 62.2 percent, according to the RKI. More than 55 million people have received at least one vaccine dose.

Global tally

Coronavirus cases worldwide surpassed 225.31 million while the global death toll topped 4.64 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

A man receives a dose of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, outside the church of the Virgin Mary, during a vaccination roll out, in the town of Archanes, on the island of Crete, Greece on Sept 6, 2021. (MICHAEL VARAKLAS / AP)

Greece

Greece will make a COVID-19 booster vaccine available to vulnerable groups from Tuesday, Health Ministry experts said, hoping to curb a rise in Delta variant infections.

Authorities would start making booster jab appointments available from Tuesday to persons with compromised immune systems and individuals over the age of 60.

"It can be administered 6-8 months after the second dose," said Maria Theodoridou, chair of the Greek National Vaccination Committee.

"For the immuno-compromised it can be given even 4 weeks after the second dose."

The country reported 1,608 new COVID-19 infections and 51 related deaths on Monday, bringing the total number of infections since the pandemic began to 616,765 and the death toll to 14,223.

Greece, with a population of 11 million people, has so far administered more than 11.8 million first shots. 

About 56 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. It hopes to increase that figure to up to 70 percent in an attempt to build wide immunity against the virus.

Italy

Italy will start administering third doses of COVID-19 vaccines to its most vulnerable citizens starting Sept. 20, the country’s virus emergency czar said on Monday. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he delivers a speech during a plenary session at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, Sept 3, 2021. (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AP/POOL)

Russia

The Kremlin said on Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin was "absolutely healthy" and had not contracted COVID-19. 

Putin is self-isolating after members of his entourage fell ill with COVID-19 and will therefore not travel to Tajikistan this week for planned regional security meetings, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

Putin, 68, was due to travel to Tajikistan for high-level meetings of the CSTO and SCO regional alliances with the rapid deterioration of security in neighbouring Afghanistan in focus.

The Kremlin said in a statement on Tuesday that Putin had called Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon to explain he could not travel due to his self-isolation regime and would take part in the meetings via video link instead.

"Putin said that due to cases of coronavirus in his entourage, he has to observe a self-isolation regime for a certain period of time," the Kremlin said in the statement on the phone call.

The Russian leader has taken an array of health precautions throughout the pandemic and has had two doses of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

South Africa

As South Africa continued experiencing vaccine hesitancy despite having adequate vaccine doses, government officials admitted there was a need to educate communities to dispel myths and fake news about COVID-19 shots.

"Government has secured sufficient vaccines to vaccinate the entire adult population, and the supply of vaccines is no longer a constraint," said President Cyril Ramaphosa Sunday night, who warned that men are still slow in coming forward to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Deputy President David Mabuza launched a vaccination social mobilization campaign last week, encouraging citizens to get vaccinated. He interacted with and took questions from ordinary people during his visits to a number of areas with low levels of vaccine uptake.

He acknowledged the role fake news and conspiracy theories played in the number of people getting vaccinated.

"Clearly we have to do more to turn around this situation of vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccination sentiments due mainly to fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories about the safety and efficacy of vaccines," he said.

South Africa has been the worst affected country in Africa by the virus, with more than 2.8 million infections and 84,877 COVID-19 related deaths up until Sunday. So far, more than a quarter of all adult South Africans have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 7 million people are fully vaccinated.

Addressing some of these conspiracy theories, Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of the South African Medical Association, said that anti-vaccine sentiments even by medical workers were hurting the vaccine campaign.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla recently said that fake news was being peddled "unfortunately even by some few health professionals."

"We need to do much more," said Ramaphosa during his national speech Sunday night. "We are spreading the message in all languages to ensure that people understand that these vaccines are safe, effective and free… We have taken steps to make it easier for people to access vaccination wherever they are."

ALSO READ: UK abandons vaccine passport plans, health minister says

A notice explaining that proof of vaccination is required to dine inside is seen at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan in New York on Sept 13, 2021. (SETH WENIG / AP)

United States

The US federal government is doubling down on COVID-19 vaccination efforts, including an ongoing plan for booster shots, while more unvaccinated people fell victims to the Delta variant in recent weeks, and the pandemic is believed by health experts to become a routine illness in the United States.

A surge in COVID-19 deaths caused by the highly contagious Delta variant is hitting working-age people hard while highlighting the risks for people who remain unvaccinated, reported The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Monday.

Federal data showed that COVID-19 deaths among people under 55 have roughly matched highs near 1,800 a week set during last winter's surge. These data showed weekly tallies for overall COVID-19 deaths, meanwhile, remain well under half of the pandemic peak near 26,000 reached in January.

The seven-day average for newly reported COVID-19 deaths each day recently eclipsed 1,600, up from an average that briefly moved below 220 a day in early July. 

With roughly 660,000 known COVID-19 deaths to date, the United States is on track to "soon top the estimated 675,000 deaths that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked to the 1918-19 flu pandemic," said the report.

High vaccination rates among the elderly, who are more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, are restraining the overall increase in deaths, and the change is shifting a larger share of deaths to younger populations with lower vaccination rates, underscoring the need to get more people inoculated to curb the pandemic, WSJ quoted experts as saying.

Deaths have been concentrated among the unvaccinated, federal data show. The CDC released studies on Friday showing that unvaccinated Americans were 4.6 times as likely to be infected, 10 times as likely to be hospitalized and 11 times as likely to die.

COVID-19 may become a routine illness like a common cold or the flu one day, another WSJ report on Monday quoted virologists and epidemiologists as saying. But it will take a lot to get there, and the ferocious spread of the Delta variant that has filled hospitals again showed how challenging that path could be.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Sunday if more people aren't persuaded to get vaccinated by messaging from health officials and "trusted political messengers," additional mandates from schools and businesses may be necessary.

In related development, COVID-19 vaccine boosters could begin to be available in a week to all fully vaccinated Americans, but exactly who will be eligible and when won't be decided until two key scientific advisory committees meet days before the US administration's Sept 20 start date, reported USA Today on Monday.

Originally, US President Joe Biden said a third shot booster dose for people with healthy immune systems would be offered beginning Sept 20 to anyone who'd gotten their second shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine at least eight months ago, pending authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.