UK scientists urge higher uptake of Covid boosters among elderly
Fifth of people over 74 in England have not had fourth vaccine, raising concern as case rate rises again
Around a fifth of people aged 75 and over in England have yet to have a fourth Covid jab, data suggests, leading to calls for a renewed push for vaccination of the vulnerable amid rising infections and hospitalisations.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in England had Covid – about 1.13 million people – a rise from 1 in 70 the week before. Upticks have also been seen in the rest of the UK, while hospitalisations are also rising.
The resurgence is thought to be down to a rise in Omicron variants including BA.4 and BA.5, although scientists say other factors may also be at play, including a return to pre-pandemic behaviour, and waning immunity.
Now scientists have stressed renewed efforts are needed to boost the uptake of Covid vaccines, particularly among older adults and other vulnerable groups who are eligible for four, or more, jabs.
UKHSA data suggests that while more than 92% of people aged 75 and over in England have so far had at least three doses, NHS England figures suggest the uptake of fourth jabs, which for most in this group is their second booster, is far lower.
According to data from NHS England, by 20 June 4,057,999 of those aged 75 and overhad received a fourth vaccination. That’s around 77%to 83% of people aged 75 and over, depending on the source used for the total number of people in this age group.
“Certainly, in my view, the message about ‘getting back to normal’ does have the impact of reducing the urgency of getting those fourth doses out,” said Prof Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. “So a combination of better messaging and efforts to ensure that those who might want a vaccine, but for various reasons aren’t getting it, is really important now.”
The UKHSA has noted the recent rise in case rates is particularly noticeable among those aged over 80, while the highest hospital admission rate is in the over-85s.
However, Kao said vaccines alone are not an answer . “As important as building up the number of vaccinated individuals is testing and isolation – free [lateral flow tests] and making it easier for people to isolate if infected is critical to reduce circulation of the virus,” he said.
Prof Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, also voiced concerns.
“I think this wave has sent us to a really serious place,” he said, noting the protective headroom offered by vaccines is under threat. “Each time, till now, the residue immune recognition kept most of us just about safe and, at least, out of hospital, if not at work. With BA4/5, that luck seems to have run out, and all over the world we’re seeing cases, and serious cases, mounting up.”
Altmann said that, like early waves of Covid, elderly people are disproportionally affected, adding that people who had early third doses now have negligible protection, while uptake of fourth doses has been poor.
“For my taste, that leaves the elderly incredibly vulnerable, but actually, the danger is there all across the age-range,” he said. “We so urgently need to shore up our precautions – masks and ventilation – while speeding into next generation vaccine approaches.”
Prof Adam Finn of the University of Bristol also backed a push to encourage vaccine uptake. “I agree that anything we can do to persuade the over-75s and people in risk groups to get their fourth doses now – given the rising numbers of cases and hospitalisations – can only be a good thing,” he said.