COVID-19 variants could force UK to revaccinate over next 2-3 years warns CMO

The UK's chief medical adviser has warned that new coronavirus variants may force the NHS to re-vaccinate the entire population in the next two to three years - and predicted a ‘difficult’ winter ahead.

CMO Professor Chris Whitty at a recent Downing Street briefing (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
CMO Professor Chris Whitty at a recent Downing Street briefing (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Speaking at the NHS Confederation conference - being held virtually - CMO Professor Chris Whitty said: ‘Over the next two to three years, I think new variants may well lead to us having to revaccinate or consider at least boosting vaccination as they come through.'

He added that ‘polyvalent vaccines’ likely to be developed in the next five years, would ‘hold the line’ against new variants as they emerged in the future.

The CMO used his speech to update delegates about the spread of the Delta variant first identified in India, which has been shown to be 64% more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant indoors. Data published by Public Health England on 18 June shows that 99% of COVID cases in the UK are the Delta variant.

Coronavirus variants

Professor Whitty said that the UK would observe how the variant spread over the next ‘several weeks’ - admitting that he was ‘uncertain’ how high this latest surge would go. He said the government was predicting further hospitalisations and deaths.

But the rollout of vaccines to all people aged 18 and older would help to ‘slow down the wave in the long term’ and help during future surges, he said.

‘My expectation is that we will get a further late autumn or winter surge, and that is because we know that winter and autumn favour respiratory viruses,' he said. 'And, therefore, it would be very surprising if this highly transmissible respiratory virus was not also favoured.'

Professor Whitty added that there could be ‘big problems over the winter’ for the health service, but admitted it would depend on the potential emergence of new variants and how the current wave progressed.

Seasonal flu

Last winter there were very low rates of flu, but the CMO said cases would likely rise this winter because of the gradual easing of social distancing measures.

‘Either we will have a very significant COVID surge, people will minimise their contacts, and we will have fewer respiratory viruses. Or people will be back to a more normal life, there will be more COVID, but we will go back to having a flu surge.

‘So I think we need to be aware of, and brace for the fact that the coming winter may well be quite a difficult one - not on the scale of the last one - but still quite a significant one. And we as the NHS have to brace ourselves for that.’

GPonline reported in February that the government was planning a booster campaign to offer patients a third dose of vaccine and that regular vaccination could become ‘a regular part of managing COVID-19’.

It’s been suggested by the health and social care secretary that the Janssen vaccine, which is a single-dose inoculation, could play an important role during the booster programme set for later this year.

Health staff have now delivered 72,891,861 vaccine doses in the UK, 42,216,654 people have received a first dose (80% of UK adults), while 30,675,207 people have had both doses (58%).

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