The government has rushed through the purchase of 114 million more Covid vaccines as scientists await data concerning the true impact of the latest variant, Sajid Javid has announced.
While the deals were already on the table, the health secretary said ministers sped up the process of signing them due to the emergency of omicron.
The agreement – which involves an additional 60 million Moderna jabs and 54 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses being delivered next year and in 2023 – will also give Britain access to any modified vaccinations if they are needed to combat omicron or any subsequent new variant.
While there is uncertainty over the need for future vaccine campaigns, Mr Javid insisted the move “will future proof the Great British vaccination effort … and will ensure we can protect even more people in the years ahead”.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) added that the new deals are in addition to 35 million additional doses of Pfizer already ordered in August, for delivery in the second half of next year, as well as the 60 million Novavax and 7.5 million GSK-Sanofi doses expected at some point in 2022.
There is currently enough supply of both Moderna and Pfizer for the expanded booster programme, announced by Boris Johnson this week, which will see all UK adults aged 18 and over offered a third jab by the end of January.
Previously, the guidance was to limit these doses to older and vulnerable members of society, including those with weakened immune systems, but the new omicron variant forced ministers to think again.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the government in its Covid vaccine rollout, has encouraged ministers to procure mRNA vaccines – made by Pfizer and Moderna – for the booster campaign.
Trial data suggests booster doses are generally well tolerated and provide a substantial increase in vaccine-induced immune responses, in particular, and that mRNA vaccines provide a strong booster effect.
In his statement, Mr Javid said: “Thanks to the Vaccines Taskforce, we have an excellent track record of securing the vaccines the country needs to keep this virus at bay.
“This is a national mission and our best weapon to deal with this virus and its variants is to get jabs in arms – so when you are called forward, get the jab and get boosted.”
It came just hours after global health leaders questioned the need for the UK’s booster campaign at all, with the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s chief scientist signalling this was not the right “goal” for leaders to focus on.
“Some countries are, as a precautionary principle, providing additional doses to people because they have adequate supplies, and they’re just doing it,” Dr Soumya Swaminathan said.
“[But] there isn't a whole lot of evidence that everybody over the age of 18, or for that matter above any age, is going to benefit from this.”
Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, echoed his colleague’s statement, telling reporters earlier he was “not aware” of any evidence to suggest offering booster jabs to the entire population gives any greater protection to healthy people.
“The primary objective, I think of all governments, now must be, in the face of delta and omicron and others, is to ensure that all vulnerable individuals, people of older age, people with underlying conditions, are immediately offered the vaccine to ensure that everyone has had at least a primary course of vaccine,” he said during a press briefing.
The DHSC, on the other hand, insists “boosters are vital”. Citing evidence from the first real world study from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), published in November, it said the third doses give over “90 per cent protection” against symptomatic Covid-19 in adults over 50 – and therefore keep people extra safe.