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Can I get my second Covid vaccine early? It’s the question many are asking this week as lockdown lifts in England.
Throughout the pandemic, both government and health officials have stressed the importance of a double Pfizer, Moderna or Oxford vaccine dosage. As well as helping to encourage herd immunity, all evidence points to a double vaccination being the most effective way to prevent people from developing serious short- and long-term illness from the virus.
But the government have now scrapped restrictions in England, including the requirement to wear a face covering, despite just over 50% of the population actually being fully vaccinated.
Can I get my second Covid vaccine early?
Unfortunately, advice from NHS England and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says that second doses of the vaccine have to be at least eight weeks after the first.
Having the second dose earlier than this could result in less protection from the vaccine, the deputy chair of the JCVI has said.
Professor Anthony Harnden told the i paper that people receiving their second doses may have “less protection against infections in a potential fourth wave” as “you’re definitely less protected against asymptomatic disease if you have a shorter dose interval”.
“There is very good immunological and vaccine effectiveness evidence that the longer you leave that second dose the better for Pfizer and eight weeks seems to be a reasonable compromise.”
A study published in May 2021 by the University of Birmingham found that older people (80 to 99 years old) who waited longer between doses (12 weeks) had an antibody response 3.5 times greater than those who only waited three weeks between doses.
The research project was the very first one to compare the effect of short and longer waiting times between doses.
“Our study demonstrates that peak antibody responses after the second Pfizer vaccine are markedly enhanced in older people when this is delayed to 12 weeks,” Helen Parry, author of the study, said.
A similar study published in June 2021 by Oxford University showed that a longer waiting time of 45 weeks between the first and second doses of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine produced a better immune response as well.
The research on the vaccine also indicated that a third booster jab would continue to create antibodies against Covid-19.
There’s no issue with having the vaccine a few days early if it avoids wastage. But shorter intervals between doses were “not in the person’s best interest or in the population’s best interest”.
He added, “Our policy is eight weeks so they shouldn’t be having [the second dose] early and if they’re having it early to get off on their holidays, it’s not a sensible idea really.”
The government has proposed the idea of “booster jabs” for those vulnerable to Covid. But plans to offer a third vaccination to those less vulnerable haven’t been announced yet.
“The programme’s designed to prevent hospitalisations and deaths. And therefore targeting boosters with the most vulnerable first is clearly the right strategy,” he said.
At the start of the vaccine roll-out, health officials said a 12 week gap between doses is ideal for maximum protection. However, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, explained that the changing nature of the new Delta variant led to the government decreasing the gap from 12 weeks to 8 weeks.
“In the absence of any growing variant, the UK would have stuck to its plans to vaccinate with a 12-week interval.”
“However, we now know that two doses of the vaccine are very much better than one dose for protection against infection with the Delta variant,” he said. “We now find ourselves in a straight race between finishing the vaccination programme and how quickly the Delta variant will continue to grow.”
He added, “That is why JCVI has now shortened the dosing interval back to 8 weeks as a response to an ever-changing situation.”
However, with growing concerns over the transmissibility of the new Delta variant amid the lockdown ending, some centres are defying the rules and offering second vaccinations as early as 21 days after the first.
Over the government’s “Grab a Jab” weekend in June, many pop-up vaccination sites offered early second doses. Evidence on social media also suggests that walk-in clinics in England were offering second jabs early ahead of the restrictions easing on July 19.
An NHS England spokesperson said that they were contacting vaccination centres.
“Every site should vaccinate in line with JVCI guidance which is clear that second doses should take place eight weeks after the first,” they said.
Will the government shorten the waiting time between jabs?
Getting the second Covid vaccine early could become a common practice, though. The government may halve the waiting time to four weeks anyway.
Number 10 officials have reportedly asked the JCVI to offer urgent advice on reducing the time between doses from eight weeks down to four, in order to speed up the administration of second doses.
If the government approves the decision, it will be younger people who primarily benefit. Most of those aged 40 and over have now been offered both doses of the vaccine. So as well as providing better immunity for those who could be at risk of illness and conditions such as long Covid, it opens up the idea of quarantine-free international travel for more people.
According to an ONS report, 62% of adults between 16 to 29 years old were looking forwards to booking a holiday abroad when the legal restrictions ended. Currently, anyone going abroad to a country that isn’t on the green list has to quarantine if they are not able to prove a double vaccination.
Those who can prove that they have had both doses of the vaccine will be able to travel to country on the amber list without having to quarantine on their return to the UK.
The government has also urged many venues to consider using the NHS Covid Pass scheme as a condition for entry. If they do, only those who have had both doses (or proof of a negative test instead) can enter.