Flu could be a bigger problem than Covid this winter because immunity is so low, advisor warns


Flu could pose a ‘bigger problem’ than Covid this winter because very few people currently have immunity against it, a top Government scientist warned today.  

Professor Anthony Harnden, who advises No10 on Covid vaccines, said there had been a ‘very, very low’ prevalence of influenza over the past few years.

He added that flu cases plunged to ‘virtually nil’ when the pandemic hit as lockdowns and social distancing rules curbed the spread of other respiratory viruses.

Professor Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the low rates meant barely anyone had been exposed to flu and built up natural immunity, leaving the bulk of the population vulnerable.  

He warned it could cause havoc on the NHS this winter if there is a large influenza outbreak.

‘I will emphasise that actually flu could be potentially a bigger problem this winter than Covid,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

Professor Anthony Harnden warned that the flu could be a 'bigger problem' than Covid-19 this winter, because less people are now immune to it following Covid restrictions

Professor Anthony Harnden warned that the flu could be a ‘bigger problem’ than Covid-19 this winter, because less people are now immune to it following Covid restrictions

Admissions to intensive care unit and high dependency unit with the flu have been flat since last October, while patients admitted with Covid peaked in January

Admissions to intensive care unit and high dependency unit with the flu have been flat since last October, while patients admitted with Covid peaked in January

Flu kills around 17,000 people in England every year, compared to Covid which killed 109,396 people in England up to March 1 2021

Flu kills around 17,000 people in England every year, compared to Covid which killed 109,396 people in England up to March 1 2021

‘We’ve had a very, very low prevalence of flu for the last few years, particularly virtually nil during lockdown, and we do know that when flu has been circulating in very low numbers immunity drops in the population, and it comes back to bite us. 

Plans for a Covid booster jab programme in the autumn will be set out in the next few weeks, Matt Hancock says amid calls for No10 to get its act together and end ’emergency response’ 

Matt Hancock today promised to set out plans for Britain’s autumn booster Covid vaccine campaign in the coming weeks.

The Health Secretary said officials were waiting for the results from a Government-funded trial into whether mixing and matching different jabs gives better protection.

‘When we know the results of that [study], then we will set out the full plans for the booster programme over the autumn,’ Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast today. 

Findings are expected from the £19.3million Cov-Boost trial in the coming weeks. But pressure is mounting on No10 to unveil the plans by NHS bosses who say they need as much time as possible to staff the mammoth operation.

Hospital trusts will have to juggle the jab campaign with an annual flu jab programme and the backlog of routine care that has amassed during the pandemic.

Experts believe two standard vaccine doses are extremely effective for at least six months and probably much longer – but exactly when immunity begins to fade is not yet known because the jabs are so new.

Officials will aim to give a third vaccine dose to the elderly and vulnerable for whom vaccines traditionally wear off quicker as the country moves into the colder months, when Covid finds it easier to spread.

But they want to know whether, for example, giving a Pfizer dose to a patient who has received two AstraZenca jabs could give them even better immunity, as is the case with vaccines for other viruses. 

Seven Covid jabs are being mixed and matched in the trial, including the three vaccines already deployed in the UK. 

As well as the AZ, Pfizer and Moderna jabs, Southampton University scientists are also looking at vaccines made by Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, Valneva and CureVac.

They have recruited thousands of fully-vaccinated Britons to the study, which will record any side-effects analyse the antibody levels of volunteers to check whether the extra dose offered any extra protection. 

Almost a third of all adults in the UK have now had two jabs, while 80 per cent of the population has had a first jab. But the elderly and vulnerable are expected to need a third jab to protect them this winter.     

It came as one million jabs were booked over the weekend as officials launched a ‘summer sprint’ to vaccinate all over-18s by July 19.  

‘So, flu can be really, really important this winter.’

NHS hospitals usually see a mass influx of flu patients every winter — but over the past year they have barely treated any influenza sufferers. Public Health England credited lockdowns for the figures. 

The first and second lockdowns — coupled with government messages encouraging people to wash their hands, wear facemasks and stay 2meters apart — meant Brits were less likely to pick up other illnesses like the flu and common cold. 

Top experts — including Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance — have said throughout the pandemic that we need to learn to live with Covid like we do with flu because it will be impossible to completely eradicate. 

Flu kills around 17,000 people in England every year. For comparison, 125,000 Brits have died of Covid over the last 18 months.

But deaths from influenza and pneumonia are currently killing three times as many people as Covid, other data suggests. 

It comes amid plans to roll-out booster Covid vaccines this winter to cut down the threat of a potential third wave.  

The booster objections are expected to be administered at the same time as flu jabs and could happen alongside each other for next 10 winters.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today confirmed plans will be set out in the coming weeks. 

Professor Harnden said data on whether the flu and Covid jabs could be given at the same time is expected soon.

This information on how the jabs react with each other and the side-effects recorded when the injections are given together is ‘really important’, he said. 

Pressure is mounting on No10 to unveil the plans by NHS bosses, who say they need as much time as possible to staff the mammoth operation.

Hospital trusts will have to juggle the campaign with an annual flu jab programme and the backlog of routine care that has amassed during the pandemic.

No10’s plans to vaccinate those aged 16 and 17 before the beginning of the school year in September could throw another spanner in the works. 

The Health Secretary said officials were waiting for the results from a Government-funded trial into whether mixing and matching different jabs gives better protection.

‘When we know the results of that [study], then we will set out the full plans for the booster programme over the autumn,’ Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast today.  

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers — which looks after NHS trusts and foundations — told Times Radio: ‘Flu jabs start in September.

‘So if we’re going to do one jab in one arm, one jab in the other, we really do need to know quite quickly. 

‘We’ve done a fantastic emergency response in terms of these vaccines up to now, but we now need to make them business as usual and we’ve got to basically do them alongside all the other work the NHS has got to do, which is why we’re saying the more time that we can have to do that planning, the more time we’ve got to make this business as usual.

‘To be frank, we’re probably going to need to do these vaccinations, probably on an annual basis for, I don’t know, at least five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years.’  

Despite the Health Secretary pressing on with booster jab plans, some experts have question whether they are even needed.  

Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which played a key role in developing AstraZeneca ‘s coronavirus jab, warned last week that it was not yet clear that a third jab is required.

‘We are actually in quite a good place at the moment, we’re not seeing any failure over time, waning of that protection, but it is something to be looked at, but I don’t think we have the evidence to predict dates if boosters are indeed needed,’ he said.



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Plans for a Covid booster jab programme in the autumn will be set out in the next few weeks