Mon. Jul 26th, 2021
Vaccines and immunisation

Sage scientist warns current wave risks being longest yet, with ‘eye-watering’ hospitalisations and deaths possible

Pressure is growing on ministers and advisers to reach a decision on vaccinating children against Covid as a Sage scientist warned the current wave risks being the longest yet, with “eye-watering” hospitalisations and deaths possible before the end of the year despite the vaccine rollout.

In June the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use on children aged 12-15. In making its decision the MHRA said the jab is safe and effective in this age group and that the benefits outweigh any risks. The jabs are already given to children in some other countries including 5m aged 12 to 15 in the US.

However opinion among experts as to whether the jabs should now be made available to older children in the UK appears to be divided.

While some have suggested there is a delicate balance of risks and benefits to the move, as well as ethical conundrums given vulnerable people in many poorer countries have yet to be jabbed, others stressed it is necessary to prevent disruption to education, reach herd immunity and prevent children becoming ill, including with long Covid.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has made recommendations to the government on the matter, the Guardian understands. But ministers have yet to reveal what the advice says and what policy decision has been made – a hold-up leaving some committee members baffled.

“It is out of our hands as we only advise ministers,” one JCVI member said. However another person with knowledge of the situation suggested JCVI discussions may be ongoing, with data on the ratio of benefits to risks incomplete.

A senior Tory MP said some government medics were still “struggling with the idea that it might not be ethical and perhaps not even lawful” to vaccinate children when it might not be in their personal interest, even if it was in the interest of wider society.

The delay comes as England prepares to lift almost all coronavirus restrictions on Monday, while data shows estimated one in 95 people in the community in England had the virus in the most recent week.

Scientists have urged the government to release details of the JCVI advice. Speaking to the Guardian, Prof John Edmunds, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and the modelling sub-group Spi-M, cautioned the current situation is different to past waves.

“[With] the previous waves, we have curtailed them by going into lockdown and so they have been quite sharp peaks,” he said, adding that meant cases and subsequently hospitalisations are brought down quickly. But the government’s plan was for no further lockdowns.

“I think that is an inherently more risky situation and the second thing about it is that I think we are likely to get a much longer wave than we have seen before,” he said, with hospital admissions relatively high for quite a long time, as modelled by Spi-M experts.

“Those epidemic peaks are long, drawn-out affairs” which could result in high cumulative numbers of hospitalisations and deaths over the rest of the year, he said. “That’s why you end up with what looks like really eye-watering, horrible numbers of deaths and hospitalisations.”

Assuming no waning in protection offered by the Covid vaccines, modelling from Edmunds and colleagues suggest between about 82,000 and 160,000 Covid hospitalisations by the end of the year and between about 9,000 to 18,000 more deaths, depending on how public behaviour changes from Monday.

Edmunds said he supported vaccinating secondary school-age children, ideally over the summer holidays, and backed calls for the release of the JCVI advice.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, also called for the JCVI’s decision to be released. “Given the UK is opening up society and in essence simply exposing children to a high burden of Covid-19, it would be good to have a decision from the JCVI very soon,” he said.

However Sir Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said it is right the focus is elsewhere. “At this moment the focus is rightly on ensuring high uptake of vaccines in adults to minimise the risk to the public health and pressure on the NHS,” he said.

The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.

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Wizadclick | WAC MAG 2021