Health officials have brought forward plans for autumn flu and Covid vaccinations after detecting a highly-mutated Covid variant that is spreading around the world.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said vaccinations would be available from 11 September in England as a precautionary measure intended to protect the most vulnerable as the winter months approach. The vaccination programme had not been scheduled to launch until early October.
The move comes after scientists at the agency detected the first UK case of the new variant, named BA.2.86, on 18 August and as many schools in England prepare to go back after the summer break next week.
The variant has a large number of mutations and has been spotted in several countries in people without any recent travel history, suggesting that it is spreading in more than one region. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases have been recorded in Denmark, South Africa, the US and the UK.
BA.2.86 has yet to be classified a “variant of concern”, meaning it has the potential to drive a fresh wave of illness, but health officials decided to bring forward the flu and Covid vaccine programmes to help those at greatest risk of severe disease and reduce the potential impact on the NHS. The large number of mutations make it a contender for evading immune defences built up by previous vaccination and infection.
Under the revised plan, people in care homes for older people, the clinically vulnerable, those aged 65 and over, and health and social care staff can have a Covid vaccine in September. Where possible, the annual flu shot will be made available to the same groups at the same time, the UKHSA said.
“Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population,” said Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UKHSA. “However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19. This precautionary measure to bring forward the autumn programme will ensure these people have protection against any potential wave this winter.”
Scientists have little information on BA.2.86 so its potential impact is hard to estimate. Dame Harries said the agency would continue to monitor the variant and advise the government and the public as it learned more.
It is unclear whether BA.2.86 will cause more severe illness than previous variants. So far, areas that have the variant have not recorded increases in transmission or hospital admissions compared with neighbouring areas where the variant has yet to be detected, the CDC said, though it cautioned that it was too soon to evaluate the variant’s eventual impact.
Genetic analysis shows that BA.2.86 has more than 30 additional mutations compared with BA.2, the Omicron lineage that dominated last year, and more than 35 extra mutations than the XBB.1.5 variant which has so far dominated 2023. The number of extra mutations is similar to when the first Omicron variant, BA.1, emerged and spread rapidly around the globe.
The UK vaccination campaign was originally scheduled for October because the jabs tend to provide the best protection when there is a short gap between receiving the shot and being exposed to the circulating viruses.
Following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the Covid vaccine will be offered to all adults over 65, residents of care homes for older adults, those at clinical risk, frontline health and social care workers, and people aged 12 to 64 who are household contacts of people who are immunosuppressed and so less able to fight off infections.