Category: Coronavirus

Covid-19 treatments and vaccines must be evaluated in pregnancy

The numbers of pregnant and postpartum women in the UK admitted to hospital or intensive care because of Covid-19 peaked over the summer of 2021 Maternal mortality has reached concerning levels in 2021, with case fatality rates rising in the US, doubling in Brazil, and almost tripling in India since the beginning of the pandemic. In Brazil, health officials even suggested avoiding pregnancy to reduce risk during the pandemic.

Inconsistent messaging from authorities, driven by lack of trial data, has increased Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy among pregnant women. This, coupled with the increased transmissibility of new variants and relaxing of social distancing restrictions, contributed to the surge in hospital admissions seen in successive waves. Concerns around the longer term effect of Covid-19 post partum, including long Covid, cardiovascular complications of covid-19, and widening socioeconomic disparities are also mounting. Despite a desperate need for treatments, pregnant women continue to be left behind.

The full article can be read in the British Medical Journal.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n2377

Covid-19 vaccination in children, adolescents, and young adults: how can we ensure high vaccination uptake?

After a rapid start, the pace of the United Kingdom’s (UK) covid-19 vaccination programme has slowed down while the UK still faces high infection, hospitalisation, and death rates, and a more transmissible Delta SARS-CoV-2 variant. Now that vaccination of children aged 12-15 has started, it is essential to achieve a high uptake of vaccination in this group, and also in young adults, to both protect them and to move the UK closer towards population level immunity. [1,2] Despite two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines offering good protection against the Delta variant—with Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines between 92-96% effective in preventing hospitalisations—many young people remain unvaccinated by choice, raising their risk of infection, hospitalisation, and long-term complications from covid-19. [3-5]

The UK population is among the most willing to receive a covid-19 vaccine; as of 11 October 2021, over 49 million individuals (85.6% of people aged 16 and over) had received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine. [6,7] However, the covid-19 vaccination programme—the largest ever launched by the NHS—is reaching a “demand” ceiling in adolescents and young adults, finding itself well behind other Western European countries, and hampering efforts to achieve population level immunity. If vaccination uptake is also slow in 12-15 years old children, this will further hinder efforts to reach population immunity.

Vaccination rates in younger people are lower and increasing more slowly than was seen in older age groups when they were first offered vaccination. [1,8] According to the Office for National Statistics, 14% of those aged 16-17 years, 10% of those aged between 22-25 years, and 9% of those aged between 18-21 years consider themselves “hesitant” compared to 4% observed across all other age groups. [5] This mirrors concerning findings from the USA which demonstrate that one in four of those aged between 18 and 25 “probably will not” or “definitely will not” receive a covid-19 vaccine, despite their heightened infection risk in recent months. [9] Given their increased tendency to socialise, strategies that improve vaccine acceptance in adolescents and young adults remain essential to control the pandemic globally as well as in the UK. [10]

Historically, vaccine hesitancy exists on a spectrum and is listed by the WHO as one of the top 10 global health threats. [11] The groups that are among the currently most affected by the virus are also the ones with the lowest vaccination rates. [12] With ideal conditions for SARS-CoV-2 to spread, the risk of emergence of “super variants” that could potentially escape vaccines and jeopardise the health of the most vulnerable in society remains a risk. Vaccine hesitancy in young people in the UK may be further increased by the delay in approving vaccination for 12–15 year-olds, with the UK starting vaccination later than many other European and North American countries. The message from the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) that covid-19 vaccination in this group offers only “marginal benefits” will also have contributed to this, with many parents and children questioning why they should be vaccinated if this is the case. [13] The benefits and potential risk from vaccination will therefore need to be discussed carefully with children and their parents to dispel any unwarranted negative views. [14]

This has been successfully done in Portugal; despite Portuguese parents not being safe from vaccine misinformation and disinformation, the country has managed to emerge as the world’s vaccination front-runner, with 86% of its population vaccinated (98% of whom are aged 12 years and over). [15] Its successful vaccine rollout is, in part, attributed to the country’s comprehensive monitoring system; vaccine compliance is monitored nationally by healthcare facilities, schools, daycare centres, summer camps, and other child institutions, allowing the country to develop and tailor educational information to hesitant parents or parents known to have refused a vaccine in the past. [16] This has generated favourable conditions for paediatric immunisation across the country.

Concerns about side effects are an important factor in vaccine hesitancy in children, adolescents, and young adults, particularly the risk of condition such as myocarditis. [9] Although rare, the myocarditis and pericarditis reports in adolescents and young adults, following the administration of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, will have amplified fears of vaccines in this group. [17] However, the risk of developing complications, such as blood clots and myocarditis, from covid-19 illness remains greater than the risk from vaccines. [18] Genuine concerns about the side effects of vaccines should be addressed by academics and clinicians proactively listening to young people, and sharing risks and benefits in a manner that aligns intention with action. [19] It is also essential that moving forwards, the UK’s covid-19 vaccination programme is embedded in primary care to create a cost-effective, sustainable infrastructure for vaccine delivery; and to avoid making the many mistakes that were made in other parts of the covid-19 response, such as Test and Trace and the Nightingale Hospitals. [20]

To offset optimistic bias, including adolescents and young adults perceiving the risk of disease being lower than the risk of receiving a covid-19 vaccine, communication should speak to mechanism of action, effectiveness, and safety relevant to these age groups and the wider societal benefits of vaccination in protecting their older family members, and vulnerable friends and colleagues. [10,21] Further, public health messaging will be more effective if the benefits of controlling the pandemic, including freedom to attend festivals, sporting events and entertainment venues, as well as the ability to travel are reinforced. Targeted health messaging and public education campaigns will also require harnessing social media, schools and universities to counter the covid-19 infodemic. [10] To increase vaccination rates, messages should be tailored for families financially burdened by the pandemic, families with lower parental education and incomes, and adolescents and young adults with adverse childhood experiences. [10]

While the risk of severe disease and death from covid-19 is lower in young people, high infection rates and low vaccination rates mean this group remains vulnerable to long covid and its debilitating symptoms, regardless of the symptoms shown during their covid-19 infection. [9] With the majority of covid-19 deaths occurring in those aged 75 years and over throughout the pandemic, a youthful sense of invincibility will be an important barrier to overcome; young adults need to be mindful that although their symptoms may not be as severe, 57%, 39% and 30% of individuals have stated that long covid has negatively impacted their wellbeing, ability to exercise and ability to work, respectively. [22,23] Recent evidence suggests more people expressed fear and concern about the risk to health of those close to them. [24] Therefore, emphasising the protection that vaccines offer to those particularly vulnerable will likely have a positive effect on adolescents and young adults and their parents.

The pandemic is a “collective action problem,” requiring personal responsibility and responsible communication by governments and public health authorities that break through optimistic bias without prompting feelings of anxiety. The UK’s mixed messages on mitigation measures including face masks and working from home are likely to provide a false sense of security that discourages vaccination uptake at a time when infection rates remain much higher in the UK than other European countries. The race between vaccinations and mutations requires consistent, clear, and data-based messages that dispel misinformation, and promote informed decision-making, civic awareness, voluntary cooperation and a sense of collective purpose. This will improve vaccine uptake in all sections of the population, including children, adolescents, and young adults, at a key time when vaccination is being extended in many countries to younger age groups.

Tasnime Osama, Honorary Clinical Research Fellow in Primary Care and Public Health, Department of Primary Care & Public Health, Imperial College London. Twitter @itasnimeo

Mohammad S Razai, NIHR In-Practice Fellow in Primary Care, Population Health Research Institute, St George’s University of London. Twitter @MohammadRazai

Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health, Department of Primary Care & Public Health, Imperial College London. Twitter @Azeem_Majeed

Competing Interests: None declared. 

Acknowledgements: AM is supported by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration NW London. MSR is funded by the NIHR as an In-Practice Fellow. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

This article was first published by BMJ Opinion.

References:

  1. GOV.UK. Vaccinations in the UK 2021 doi: Available from: https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/vaccinations
  2. CIDRAP. Youth, Delta variant behind UK COVID surge. 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2021/06/youth-delta-variant-behind-uk-covid-surge
  3. Yale Medicine. Comparing the COVID-19 Vaccines: How Are They Different? . 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/covid-19-vaccine-comparison
  4. GOV.UK. Vaccines highly effective against hospitalisation from Delta variant. 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/vaccines-highly-effective-against-hospitalisation-from-delta-variant
  5. Office for National Statistics. Coronavirus and vaccine hesitancy, Great Britain: 26 May to 20 June 2021. 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandvaccinehesitancygreatbritain/26mayto20june2021
  6. Imperial College London. Covid-19: Global attitudes towards a COVID-19 vaccine. 2021
  7. GOV.UK. Daily summary. Coronavirus in the UK. 2021 doi: Available from: https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/
  8. Publich Health England.  COVID-19 vaccine surveillance report – week 29. 2021
  9. S. Leigh. Vaccine Hesitancy in Young Adults May Hamper Herd Immunity. UC San Francisco. . 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2021/07/420991/vaccine-hesitancy-young-adults-may-hamper-herd-immunity
  10. Afifi TO, Salmon S, Taillieu T, et al. Older adolescents and young adults willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine: Implications for informing public health strategies. Vaccine 2021;39(26):3473-79.
  11. World Health Organization. Ten threats to global health in 2019. 2019 doi: Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019
  12. Public Health England. SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and variants under investigation in England 2021
  13. Salisbury H. Helen Salisbury: Official hesitancy is not helping. bmj 2021;374
  14. Majeed A, Hodes S, Marks S. Consent for covid-19 vaccination in children. bmj 2021;374
  15. The New York Times. In Portugal, There Is Virtually No One Left to Vaccinate 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/01/world/europe/portugal-vaccination-rate.html
  16. Fonseca IC, Pereira AI, Barros L. Portuguese parental beliefs and attitudes towards vaccination. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine 2021;9(1):422-35.
  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Myocarditis and Pericarditis Following mRNA COVID-19 Vaccination. 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/myocarditis.html
  18. Oxford University. Risk of rare blood clotting higher for COVID-19 than for vaccines 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2021-04-15-risk-rare-blood-clotting-higher-covid-19-vaccines
  19. Dubov A, Phung C. Nudges or mandates? The ethics of mandatory flu vaccination. Vaccine 2015;33(22):2530-35.
  20. Hodes S, Majeed A. Building a sustainable infrastructure for covid-19 vaccinations long term. bmj 2021;373
  21. Razai MS, Chaudhry UA, Doerholt K, et al. Covid-19 vaccination hesitancy. bmj 2021;373
  22. Office for National Statistics. Coronavirus (COVID-19) latest insights: Deaths. 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/articles/coronaviruscovid19latestinsights/deaths
  23. Office for National Statistics. Coronavirus and the social impacts of ‘long COVID’ on people’s lives in Great Britain 2021 doi: Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/articles/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsoflongcovidonpeopleslivesingreatbritain/7aprilto13june2021
  24. Antonopoulou V et al. Which factors may help increase COVID-19 vaccine uptkae in England? . 2021 doi: Available from: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/behscipru/outputs/policybriefings/PRU-PB-011%20PRU%20covid%20vaccine%20policy%20brief%20study%204%20300421.pdf

Be aware of the overlap in symptoms between colds and Covid-19

During the previous winter (2020-21), rates of colds, flu and other respiratory infections were very low across the UK because of social distancing and other infection control measures. Now that these measures have largely stopped, we are seeing an increase in respiratory infections.

The symptoms of a cold can typically include a blocked or runny nose, sore throat, headache, cough , loss of smell, sneezing and muscle aches. Many of these symptoms can also occur in people with a Covid-19 infection. Now that most adults in the UK have been fully vaccinated with two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, when people do contract Covid-19, it is often with milder symptoms that can overlap those from a cold. This means that for many people with these kinds of symptoms, a Covid-19 test will be needed to separate the two conditions.

There will be a lot of scope to confuse the symptoms of colds and Covid-19 during the winter. The message for the public should be to always be cautious if you have symptoms of a cold, get a test when appropriate, and limit interactions with people outside your household until you are better.

You can read more about this issue in this Daily Mirror article.

Consent for covid-19 vaccination in children

Now that covid-19 vaccination of children in the UK is starting, it is essential that the legal basis of consent for a medical intervention in this group are well understood

Court of Appeal ruling on 17 September 2021 overturned a previous High Court ruling, and decided that parental consent is not needed for children under 16 to take puberty blockers. This reaffirms, again, that the responsibility to consent to treatment depends on the ability of medical staff to decide on the capacity of under 16 year olds to consent to medical treatment.

The timing is auspicious. Just a few days before, the four UK Chief Medical Officers recommended that all healthy children aged 12-15 should be “offered” a single covid-19 vaccine, with a booster likely in the Spring 2022. Until now, the only children in this age group offered a vaccine have been those with certain medical conditions, or those living in a household with a clinically vulnerable adult. With a mass vaccine campaign for children now starting, the issue of consent for vaccines in this group has been headline news.

Reaching the decision about vaccinating 12-15 year olds in the UK has been an interesting process. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) have deliberated, awaiting evolving evidence, and have scrutinised the data available purely on a risk benefit basis for the vaccine itself. The chief medical officers looked at wider effects to society, and given that modelling suggests that vaccination of 12-15 year olds can save so many lost days of school, infections and associated transmission, they recommended vaccination to the government, but leaving the final decision to politicians.

Now that covid-19 vaccination of children in the UK is starting, it is essential that the legal basis of consent for a medical intervention in this group are well understood by parents, carers, health professionals—and most importantly by children. Teenagers who are aged 16 or 17 are deemed under English law to be able to give their own consent for vaccination. But what about 12-15 year olds?

Ideally, for children who are aged 12-15, covid-19 vaccination would be given with the approval and support of their parents. This is likely to improve children’s confidence in covid-19 vaccines, and help ensure a high and rapid take-up of vaccination. With the vaccine programme due to start in schools before the end of September, parents are being sent out consent forms, along with NHS information leaflets. Explaining such a finely balanced decision in child friendly terms will be challenging. A survey by the UK Office for National Statistics reported that around 90% of parents were in favour of vaccinating children. Surveys also show good confidence in covid-19 vaccines among children and young adults (but usually at a lower level than among older people).

But despite high overall support for covid-19 vaccination, there will be families where children and parents may have very differing opinions about its risks and benefits. For example, some parents may be strongly opposed to covid-19 vaccination, but their child may have a different view. The opposite situation is also possible whereby the parents are in favour of vaccination but the child is opposed to vaccination.

In such circumstances, the NHS and the responsible clinicians have to decide if the child is competent to make their own decision about covid-19 vaccination. This is known as Gillick competence following a court case in the 1980s between Ms Victoria Gillick and the NHS about consent to treatment for children under 16. The court case eventually made its way to the House of Lords, which ruled that “As a matter of Law, the parental right to determine whether or not their minor child below the age of sixteen will have medical treatment terminates if and when the child achieves sufficient understanding and intelligence to understand fully what is proposed.” The ruling is valid in England and Wales.

Whether a child is Gillick competent is assessed using criteria such as the age of the child, their understanding of the treatment (both benefits and risks) and their ability to explain their views about the treatment. If deemed to be Gillick competent, the child can make their own decision about a medical intervention such as covid-19 vaccination.

There may also be situations in which two parents disagree about covid-19 vaccination. If the child is not Gillick competent, then a decision needs to be made about which parent’s views take priority. In a court case in 2020 where two parents disagreed about vaccination for their children, the Judge ruled that vaccination was in the best interests of the child because this is what the scientific evidence suggests. In the court case, the judge (Mr Justice MacDonald) deferred deciding about any future covid-19 vaccination because of the “early stage reached with respect to the covid-19 vaccination programme.” However, now that vaccination has been approved by the UK government and is supported by bodies such as Public Health England, it is highly likely that a court would rule in favour of covid-19 vaccination where two parents had opposing views.

None of these issues are new, and the current HPV vaccination programme has tested many of the issues surrounding vaccination in this age group already. However, the scale and speed of the covid-19 vaccination may be far more contentious—particularly given the finely balanced risk-benefit profile, the small risks of myocarditis, and the vaccine hesitancy already noted in younger people.

It is important that parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals understand the risk and benefits of covid-19 vaccination for children, so that we can support them in reaching an informed decision. We need to respect the ability of our children, whose lives and education have been so greatly affected and disrupted by the pandemic, to reach their own conclusions given the evidence available. Where there is a disagreement between a child and their parents or legal guardians regarding any medical treatment, healthcare professionals must feel confident in judging Gillick Competence and the issues surrounding capacity to give consent.

Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK, Twitter @Azeem_Majeed

Simon Hodes, GP Partner, Watford, UK, Twitter @DrSimonHodes

Stephen Marks, Consultant Paediatric Nephrologist, Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, UK

Competing Interests: We have read and understood the BMJ policy on declaration of interests. AM and SH are GPs and have supported the NHS covid-19 vaccination programme. We have no other competing interests.

Acknowledgements: AM is supported by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration NW London. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

This article was first published in BMJ Opinion.

Covid infections are high in the UK – these are the reasons why

Covid-19 case numbers remain high in the UK. In this article, I discuss why this is and why vaccines are working as expected, and protecting us from serious illness and death.

What is a breakthrough infection?

No vaccine is 100% effective against preventing infection. An infection in a fully vaccinated person is sometimes described as a breakthrough infection because the infective agent has “broken through” the protection from infection provided by the vaccine.

How common is Covid-19 infection in fully vaccinated people?

Data from Public Health England show that the Covid-19 vaccines used in the UK reduce the risk of  infection by about 70-90% in people who are fully vaccinated, so vaccines prevent the majority of people who are vaccinated from becoming infected. However, some people who are fully vaccinated will still become infected. Over time, as the number of people in the population who are vaccinated increases, a greater proportion of infections will occur in vaccinated people. It is possible that the immunity from vaccination will weaken over time, with breakthrough infections therefore becoming more common, which is why the government is now considering giving booster doses of vaccine to some people.

How serious is Covid-19 infection in vaccinated people?

Research shows that vaccines are very effective in reducing the risk of serious illness from a Covid-19 infection, with around a 95% reduction in the risk of hospitalisation and death. However, some people who are vaccinated will still have a serious illness. As with infections in unvaccinated people, the risk of a serious illness is highest in the elderly and people with medical problems such as diabetes and obesity.

What makes a breakthrough infection more likely?

The more people you come into close contact with, the more likely you are to have a breakthrough infection. People whose work involves a lot of contact with other people, such as health professionals, will be at greater risk of a breakthrough infection. The risk of a breakthrough infection is also higher in people with weak immune systems because vaccines work less well for them. The risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 is highest in poorly-ventilated, crowded indoor spaces. To reduce your risk of infection, you should as far as possible, avoid these kinds of settings. A face mask can provide some protection from infection, particularly if you use a higher specification mask such as FFP2 mask.

How do new variants like delta effect the risk of infection?

The delta variant of the coronavirus that spread across the world in 2021, and which is now responsible for nearly all cases of Covid-19 in the UK, is more infectious than other variants. Vaccines will be a little less effective at preventing infection from the delta variant than the variants that were previously circulating in the UK. However, vaccines still remain very effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalisation and death, even against infections caused by the delta variant. So far, we have not yet come across a variant of the coronavirus against which vaccines are ineffective.

How well are vaccines working in the UK?

Vaccines are working very well in the UK. Around 81% of people aged 16 and over have been fully vaccinated. Public Health England estimates that around 24 million infections, 144,000 hospitalisations and 112,000 deaths have been prevented by vaccination. Without vaccines, the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the UK would be much higher than now, requiring further Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns to control the pandemic. It is vaccines that have allowed the government to relax these restrictions and let people to live more normally.

First published in the Daily Mirror.

Risk of Covid-19 in shielded and care home patients

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, the elderly and people who were clinically extremely vulnerable were asked to shield to reduce their risks of Covid-19 infection and its complications. We evaluated the effectiveness of shielding in a study published recently in the journal BJGP Open.

We found that Covid-19 rates were much higher in the shielded group compared with non-shielded group (6.5% vs 1.8%). The increase in risk of infection in the shielded group persisted after adjustment for a wide range of factors in a Cox proportional hazards regression model.

We also found that Covid-19 rates were seven times higher in people living in care homes; and were also higher among people from ethnic minorities, those living in poorer areas, and in people with long-term medical conditions such as respiratory disease.

Our results suggest that shielding alone is not enough to protect clinically vulnerable people and that vaccination, along with suppressing community infection rates, remains the best way to protect these patients from the risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19.

Our results also refute suggestions that the UK could have avoided lockdowns by shielding vulnerable groups, whilst allowing society to otherwise function normally. This policy would probably have led to even higher infection, hospitalisation, and death rates in vulnerable people.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.3399/BJGPO.2021.0081

Impact of social restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical activity levels of older adults

Physical inactivity adversely affects older adults, with more than 60% of those aged over 75 years not sufficiently physically active for good health as defined by meeting the WHO and UK guidelines. From March until June 2020 in the UK, a national ‘lockdown’ was implemented to reduce exposure to, and transmission of, COVID-19. Although applied to the whole population, adults aged over 70 years and those with underlying health conditions at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease were asked to follow more stringent social distancing measures. These included remaining at home where possible; avoiding social mixing in the community; avoiding physically interacting with friends and family; and avoiding public transport.

In a paper published in the journal BMJ Open, we examined self-reported physical activity before and after the introduction of lockdown, as measured by metabolic equivalent of task (MET) minutes. Associations of physical activity with demographic, lifestyle and social factors, mood and frailty were also examined. The study population comprised adults enrolled in the Cognitive Health in Ageing Register for Investigational and Observational Trials cohort from general practitioner practices in North West London from April to July 2020. 6219 cognitively healthy adults aged 50–92 years completed the survey.

Mean physical activity was significantly lower following the introduction of lockdown from 3519 to 3185 MET min/week (p<0.001). After adjustment for confounders and pre-lockdown physical activity, lower levels of physical activity after the introduction of lockdown were found in those who were over 85 years old (640 (95% CI 246 to 1034) MET min/week less); were divorced or single (240 (95% CI 120 to 360) MET min/week less); living alone (277 (95% CI 152 to 402) MET min/week less); reported feeling lonely often (306 (95% CI 60 to 552) MET min/week less); and showed symptoms of depression (1007 (95% CI 612 to 1401) MET min/week less) compared with those aged 50–64 years, married, cohabiting and not reporting loneliness or depression, respectively.

We concluded that markers of social isolation, loneliness and depression were associated with lower physical activity  following the introduction of lockdown in the UK. Targeted interventions to increase physical activity in these groups are needed to limit adverse health outcomes from lower levels of exercise.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2021-050680

Vaccinating healthcare workers against Covid-19

In an article published in the British Medical Journal, we discuss the topic of vaccinating healthcare workers against Covid-19. Our conclusion is that compulsion is unnecessary and inappropriate.

Parliament’s decision to make vaccination against covid-19 a condition of employment for care home workers has fuelled the debate around compulsory vaccination for healthcare workers, which may follow. Compulsory vaccination is not a panacea and may harm the safety of patients and healthcare workers, as well as affecting workload and wellbeing. It is a dilemma familiar to occupational health services in many NHS trusts.

Is there a vaccine hesitancy problem in UK healthcare for which mandatory vaccination is an appropriate solution? Data suggesting pockets of poor uptake of covid-19 vaccination among care home staff led the government to make vaccination compulsory, abandoning a targeted but voluntary approach. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has not published a recommended minimum acceptable level of staff vaccination for healthcare settings, but over 80% of frontline healthcare workers in NHS trusts have now received two vaccine doses,4 reaching over 90% in some trusts. The level of risk posed by the remaining minority is unlikely to justify policy change at a national level.

Vaccination is already compulsory for staff working in healthcare settings in France and Italy. However, both countries have a history of compulsory vaccinations in response to substantial vaccine hesitancy and outbreaks of vaccine preventable infections such as measles. In Italy, legislation introducing compulsory childhood vaccinations was followed by a decrease in the incidence of measles and rubella. Nevertheless, this policy is under review and may be made more flexible depending on regional vaccine coverage.

The full text of the article is available in the BMJ.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n1975

How long does immunity from Covid-19 vaccination last?

In a letter published in the British Medical Journal, I discuss the topic of how we assess the long-term safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccination. Vaccines for COVID-19 were eagerly awaited; and their rapid development, testing, approval and implementation are a tremendous achievement by all: scientists, pharmaceutical companies, drugs regulators, politicians and healthcare professionals; and by the patients who have received them.[1] Early real-world data from vaccine recipients in England, Scotland and Israel show that vaccination provides a high level of protection from symptomatic COVID-19 infection and serious illness, along with a large reduction in the risk of hospital admissions and death.

However, because these vaccines are new, we do not yet have information on how long the immunity generated by COVID-19 vaccines will last; or on how well they will protect against new variants of SARS-CoV-2. Longitudinal data on ‘vaccine failures’, or re-infections can help guide national policies on how frequently booster doses of vaccines are needed to maintain a good level of immunity in the population, and on whether vaccines need modification to provide protection against new variants of SARS-CoV-2.[2]

The UK is well-placed to collect these data and to secure its timely evaluation and integration with information provided by its strong life sciences research industry, to guide public health decision making. We also have a National Health Service that has developed computerised medical records for use in general practices on a population of around 67 million people. These electronic medical records provide longitudinal data on people’s health and medical experiences and can be used to estimate the longer-term efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.[3] This will provide a valuable resource, not just for guiding public health policy in the UK, but also for global health.

References

1. Majeed, A, Molokhia, M. Vaccinating the UK against COVID-19. BMJ 2020; 371: m4654–m4654.

2. Majeed A, Papaluca M, Molokhia M. Assessing the long-term safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. May 2021. doi:10.1177/01410768211013437

3. Hodes S, Majeed A. Building a sustainable infrastructure for covid-19 vaccinations long term BMJ 2021; 373 :n1578 doi:10.1136/bmj.n1578

What are the arguments in favour of reducing the gap between doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to 3-4 weeks?

Early on during the pandemic, the UK government took the decision to give second doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine after 12 weeks rather than the recommended 3-4 weeks. It has now reduced the gap to 8 weeks and is considering reducing the gap to 3-4 weeks. What are the arguments in favour of reducing the gap between doses to 3-4 weeks?

1. Giving the two doses of the Pfizer vaccine 3-4 weeks apart is in line with the manufacturer’s guidance.

2. This is what most other countries using the Pfizer vaccine are doing.

3. Evidence from randomised controlled trials and subsequent evidence from real-world data provides strong evidence that two doses of Pfizer vaccine given 3-4 weeks apart provide excellent protection against severe disease and death

4. Data from Public Health England shows that two doses of vaccine provide much better protection against the delta variant than one dose. Hence, giving second doses after 3-4 weeks instead of after 8-12 weeks could help reduce the current ratee of infection in the UK

5. Many people are keen to get their second dose of Pfizer vaccine quickly because of concerns about other family members or to help them travel.