A blanket programme of fourth vaccine doses is not a sustainable way to tackle the coronavirus, one of the pioneers of the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot has said.
Prof Andrew Pollard played down suggestions that countries such as Britain could follow Israel in proceeding to a fourth round of vaccinations.
He said a further top-up dose might be necessary for people who are particularly vulnerable despite having had three shots already. This is likely to include the elderly as well as those with suppressed immune systems.
But it “really is not affordable, sustainable or probably even needed to vaccinate everyone on the planet every four to six months,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We haven’t even managed to vaccinate everyone in Africa with one dose, so we’re certainly not going to get to a point where fourth doses for everyone is manageable,” he said.
“The future must be focusing on the vulnerable and making boosters or treatments available to them to protect them,” he told another interviewer.
“We know that people have strong antibodies for a few months after their third vaccination, but more data are needed to assess whether, when and how often those who are vulnerable will need additional doses.”
France expressed similar caution on Monday. Alain Fischer, the head of the French vaccination programme, said ministers could decide on potential fourth doses in February or March once there is more scientific evidence.
Prof Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, welcomed signs that the Omicron variant appears to be causing milder disease than the previously dominant Delta strain.
But he cautioned that “there will be new variants after Omicron, and we don’t yet know how they’re going to behave”.
Health workers in Britain have administered booster shots to 34.2 million people, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the population aged 12 and over.
It comes amid record infection levels caused by the Omicron variant, with more than a million cases being detected in the past week alone. Deaths and hospital admissions are some way below previous peaks.
Prof Pollard said the vaccination programme was going well in Britain but was “falling way behind” globally, with unvaccinated people still the majority in low-income countries.
The Oxford scientist is chair of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, although he recuses himself from decisions on Covid-19.
He said he was pleased that the AstraZeneca vaccine had been widely used around the world, even though it is not currently being used for booster shots in the UK.
“The vaccine development has always been about: how can we best protect people everywhere around the world?,” he said.
“We have a vaccine which is very widely distributed in more than 180 countries and over two billion doses are out there.”