The rollout of flu and COVID-19 vaccines in the UK has been brought forward after the emergence of a new variant.
NHS officials have indicated the BA.2.86 – which came to light on 18 August – is the most concerning since the arrival of Omicron.
Scientists also say it has mutated, but has not been classed as a “variant of concern”.
Vaccination efforts aimed at care home residents and those who are “immunocompromised” will now start on 11 September rather than the initial October date.
This group will be followed by carers, pregnant women, social care personnel, and individuals aged 65 and above, all of whom will receive booster shots this upcoming winter.
Dame Jenny Harries, UK Health Security Agency chief executive, said: “As we continue to live with COVID-19, we expect to see new variants emerge.
“Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population. However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19.”
Dame Jenny acknowledged the complexity of estimating the potential impact of BA.2.86, citing limited available data.
“As is the case with all emerging and circulating COVID-19 variants, both within the UK and on a global scale, we will continue to closely monitor BA.2.86 and provide guidance to the government and the public as our understanding grows,” she asserted.
The NHS said it will work swiftly “to ensure as many eligible people as possible are vaccinated by the end of October”.
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Professor Sir Stephen Powis, Medical Director of NHS England, said vaccinations were important in safeguarding against flu and COVID-19, particularly in anticipation of the demands of winter on the health service.
Steve Russell, Director of Vaccinations and Screening at the NHS, acknowledged the traditional peak of flu and COVID cases in December and January but highlighted the augmented risk due to the new variant.
“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.
Health minister Maria Caulfield said the move “makes sense”, adding: “As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination programme,” she said.