Younger adults and children should be eligible for booster jabs in the autumn, Moderna has said, as it warned that people could be “under-protected and under-vaccinated” without a wider booster programme.
Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said that restricting the booster age to 65 will leave “a lot of vulnerable people unprotected”.
Vaccination advisers in the UK have said that over 65s, frontline health and social care workers, older care home residents and adults aged 16 to 64 years “in a clinical risk group” should be invited for an autumn booster.
It comes as pharmaceutical firm announced that its variant vaccine – created specifically to tackle the Omicron variant of the virus which causes Covid-19 – generates a “high” and “strong” antibody response against the sub variants of the Omicron variant – BA.4 and BA.5.
“We think this is a strong, powerful antibody response, it is probably long lasting,” Dr Burton said.
He said that the firm’s variant vaccine could be a “turning point” in the fight against Covid-19 which could “allow us for the first time to get to get ahead of this virus”.
He added that the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants were “more pathogenic” with a higher risk of hospital admission than the original Omicron strain.
Dr Burton pointed to data from South Africa where hospital admissions appear to have been higher when BA.4 and BA.5 were the dominant strains compared to the original Omicron variant.
He also pointed to studies which have suggested that the sub variants are better at causing lower lung infections compared to the original Omicron strain – which was more likely to cause sore throats and runny noses. Lower lung infections could lead to a spike in pneumonia cases.
Asked about whether the eligibility criteria for the booster programme should be reassessed, Dr Burton said: “I think what we’re going to be looking at come the autumn is a lot of under-vaccinated, under-protected people because maybe they got boosted last November, December, for the holidays, but they’re now going to have a long interval where they haven’t had a booster.
“So people are going to be under-vaccinated and under-protected and I think restricting the booster age to 65 will leave a lot of other vulnerable people unprotected.
“Clearly governments will have to make their own public health decisions but my sense is that actually for this upcoming booster season, a broader opportunity to vaccinate everybody, including children, is probably warranted to for consideration.”
He said that the firm was due to file for regulatory approval for the variant jab “within days” and said it might even be worth the Government swapping its current stocks of the original Moderna jab with the new variant jab.
“We’ve talked with public health bodies in the UK, I think there is definite interest in 214 (the variant vaccine).
“I think the waning of immunity that we see with original vaccines is clear and those bodies understand that the virus is mutating quickly.”
On the variant jab’s efficacy he added: “Boosting or primary vaccination with (the variant vaccine) really could be a turning point in our fight against the virus because we’re able to now see these high antibody levels should provide lasting antibody response.”
He added: “There is some published data that if you’re vaccinated with the (original) vaccine it does reduce transmission, it does reduce shedding.
“It certainly protects against severe disease and hospitalisation.
“And so I think if we could roll out for late summer, early autumn, boosting, with this vaccine, I think it really would allow us for the first time to get to get ahead of this virus.
“So I think it’s important I think it could play a role in preventing transmission, shedding, and I think it would certainly protect populations against infection and certainly severe disease.”
He said the firm had been creating hundreds of millions of doses of the variant vaccine and is ready to supply large quantities to the UK.
Meanwhile he said the the firm was currently testing a joint flu and Covid vaccine with a trial to be launched within the next two months for flu, Covid and RSV – which could be pushed out as early as winter 2024 if successful.
The announcement comes as the NHS urged people who had not yet come forward for their spring booster to get their jab.
More than five million people were eligible for a spring booster with more than four million already taking up the offer of a vaccine.
The health service in England said that getting the jab before the end of June will mean people have enough time between doses ahead of an autumn booster.
NHS England’s medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “The recent rise in Covid infection levels in England acts as a timely reminder that it is crucial those who are eligible come forward for their spring jab and get themselves protected.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid added: “Over four million people have already come forward for their important booster jab, but it is vital for everyone eligible to get boosted now to protect themselves and their loved ones.”