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Health authorities in England are bringing forward the latest Covid-19 booster vaccination programme to counter a potentially dangerous sub-variant of the virus.
The UK Health Security Agency suggested speeding up the autumn vaccination programme to provide the public with greater protection from serious illness.
The rollout will now start on September 11, rather than in early October, with adult care home residents and those most at risk of severe infection receiving the first shots.
Sub-variant BA. 2.86 has not been declared a variant of concern but it has a high number of mutations, leading some scientists to worry that it could evade protection from previous immunisation or infection.
Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said that there was “limited information” on the new variant, so it was hard to assess its potential impact.
“As with all emergent and circulating Covid-19 variants — both in the UK and internationally — we will continue to monitor BA. 2.86 and to advise the government and the public as we learn more,” she said.
The sub-variant was first detected in the UK on August 18 and has appeared in several countries in individuals who had not travelled.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the variant might have a greater ability to cause infection in people who had already had Covid or been vaccinated against it.
Vaccine makers have not yet reported results on whether their existing shots — or those that are being tweaked to tackle the XBB. 15 variant — can protect against BA. 2.86, too.
The UK is also bringing forward its flu vaccination campaign, so the two jabs can be delivered at the same time wherever possible.
Maria Caulfield, the health minister, said it was “absolutely vital” that the most vulnerable groups received a vaccine “to strengthen their immunity over winter to protect themselves and reduce pressure on the NHS”.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, an independent expert advisory committee, recommended this month that the autumn Covid-19 programme targets people aged 65 or older, health and social care staff, and those who were clinically vulnerable because of other underlying health conditions.
Steve Russell, NHS England chief delivery officer and national director for vaccinations, said the NHS would hand out vaccine providers extra payments for accelerating the programme.
“While we know that flu and Covid usually hit hardest in December and January, the new Covid variant presents a greater risk now, which is why we will be ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated against Covid sooner,” he said.