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Long lines form for booster shot blitz as Britain reports first Omicron-related death

People line up along London's Westminster Bridge for COVID boosters.
People line up along London’s Westminster Bridge on Monday to get their COVID-19 booster shots at St. Thomas’ Hospital.
(Kirsty O’Connor / Press Assn.)

Long lines formed at vaccination centers in Britain on Monday as people heeded the government’s call for all adults to get booster shots to help forestall a coronavirus “tidal wave” driven by the Omicron variant, which the prime minister said Monday has caused at least one death.

In a televised announcement late Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said everyone 18 and up would be offered a third COVID-19 vaccine dose by Dec. 31 — less than three weeks away, and a month earlier than the previous target.

“We are now facing an emergency in our battle with the new variant, Omicron,” Johnson said. He said boosters would “reinforce our wall of vaccine protection” against an anticipated “tidal wave of Omicron.”

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British health authorities say that Omicron cases are doubling every two to three days in Britain and that it will replace Delta as the dominant strain within days. But it’s unclear whether the expected wave of infections will inundate the country’s health system.

Scientists in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, say they see signs that the variant may cause less severe disease than Delta but cautioned that it was too soon to be certain. Health authorities around the world are watching Britain closely to see what an Omicron surge looks like in a country with an older, more vaccinated population than South Africa’s.

About 10 people are in U.K. hospitals with COVID-19 caused by Omicron, and Johnson on Monday reported the country’s first COVID-19 death involving the variant.

With immunity waning and the Omicron variant looming, many scientists are saying the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ should include a booster shot.

“The idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that’s something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population,” Johnson said as he visited a vaccination center in London. “So the best thing we can do is all get our boosters.”

Britain’s Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to the Omicron variant, but effectiveness appears to rise to between 70% and 75% after a third vaccine dose.

More than 80% of people age 12 and up in Britain have received two vaccine doses, and 40% of adults have had three. Giving the rest boosters by the end of the month will be a huge challenge, requiring almost 1 million doses administered a day. Johnson acknowledged that many routine medical procedures would have to be postponed to meet the goal.

About 750 soldiers and thousands of volunteer vaccinators will help give the shots at doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies and pop-up immunization centers. While the online appointment booking system will not be open to under-30s until Wednesday, Johnson said any adult could show up at a walk-in center to get a booster starting Monday.

The relaxation allows for the reopening of shops, theaters, museums and other cultural venues to people who have had their COVID-19 shots.

Lines built up at big London vaccination clinics Monday morning. The line for shots at St. Thomas’ Hospital, on the south bank of the Thames in London, stretched across Westminster Bridge toward Parliament. At many clinics, people queued patiently despite being told they faced a wait of several hours.

At the Gordon Hospital walk-in clinic in central London, most of those lining up were in their 20s and 30s.

“It’s only an hour and I can get a boost,” said Sam Collins, 30. “It’s a fair bit of time, but I’ve seen loads of other clinics on social media and things which have far longer queues.”

He said he was “not especially” worried about the Omicron variant, “but I’d just prefer to be triple-vaxxed. Also, my partner has just had a baby, and she’s not vaccinated, so if I can be extra-vaccinated, then that will help.”

Gloom and frustration as already struggling Europe faces down new coronavirus variant Omicron .

The government’s appointment-booking website struggled to keep up with demand. The National Health Service advised people to try accessing the site later in the day or on Tuesday if they were encountering problems.

The government also ran out of rapid at-home coronavirus test kits, which have been distributed free to households during the pandemic. The website where tests can be ordered said none was available Monday. Starting Wednesday, people in England must show proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter nightclubs and other crowded venues.

Johnson’s Dec. 31 target applies to England. The other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.

Although Omicron is spreading around the world, Britain may be especially affected because it ordinarily has high levels of travel to and from South Africa. The Omicron outbreak is also more visible because Britain is a world leader in genomic sequencing, the technique used to identify and track new variants.

Researchers in the U.K. have sequenced about 13.3% of all positive cases, compared with 3.8% in the U.S., according to GISAID, which promotes rapid sharing of data on COVID-19 and the flu. While nations such as Iceland and Denmark have sequenced a greater percentage of their positive cases, the size of Britain’s population and the scope of its outbreak mean that the country has sequenced many more cases.

This surveillance provided a key piece of the evidence that Johnson and the nation’s chief medical officers used in deciding to tighten pandemic restrictions and ramp up the vaccination program.

The British government raised the country’s official coronavirus threat level Sunday, warning that the rapid spread of Omicron “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and healthcare services” at a time when COVID-19 is already widespread.

Concerns about the new variant led Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, COVID-19 certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and, as of Monday, people were urged to work from home if possible.

It’s the latest salvo in battles between public sector employees and governments over vaccine requirements

Many scientists say those measures are unlikely to be enough and are calling for tougher ones. But cafes, pubs and other businesses in city centers fear plummeting commuter numbers will hammer business in the usually busy holiday period.

Johnson is facing a major rebellion from unhappy Conservative lawmakers when Parliament votes on the new restrictions Tuesday. Dozens are expected to oppose the restrictions — especially vaccine certificates, which they say are unfair and economically damaging.

The measures are still highly likely to pass, with support from the opposition Labor Party.

Robert Read, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, said it was still unclear how severe the cases of COVID-19 from Omicron would be, but “the evidence is that Omicron probably requires much larger amounts of antibody in the blood in order to thwart the virus as much as possible.”

“We need to get those third doses into as many adults as we possibly can, just in case this virus turns out to be a raging bull ... rather than a pussycat,” Read told radio station LBC.


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