Overall, the rollout of booster doses of coronavirus vaccines in Belgium is slow, as the region that performed best during the first campaign is now lagging behind.
In Flanders, just 28% of people aged over 65 received a booster shot, putting it behind Brussels and Wallonia, where 32% and 37% of this age group has been given an extra dose, according to reports from De Tijd. This means it is unlikely the region will reach its target of giving all over -65s a booster dose by the end of this year.
Since the booster dose campaign started in mid-September, more than 850,000 people have been given such a dose to provide additional protection as research has shown the efficacy of all existing vaccines decreases with time.
In comparison, in the United Kingdom, where a study showed three doses reduces the risk of a Covid-19 infection by more than 93%, 12.6 million people have had a booster dose, while the government announced all over -40s will be given a booster dose six months after their last shot.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has already said Wednesday’s Consultative Committee will look at how the booster campaign can be accelerated. “Unlike at the beginning of this year, we no longer have to wait for vaccines. That should allow for a faster rollout.”
Gap in administering doses
There are various reasons why the booster dose campaign is lagging in Belgium as a whole, one of which is down to the interval period between the jabs.
Belgium started vaccinating over -65s without underlying health conditions between March and April, meaning most were fully vaccinated by May.
People who initially received the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccine can receive their booster dose at least four months after their last shot was administered. Those vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna will get their booster dose at least six months after their last jab, which means most are only just eligible to get a booster dose.
“About 33% of the Flemish people over 65 have not yet reached that interval. So in November, we will vaccinate more people than in October,” Joris Moonens, spokesperson for the Flemish Agency for Care and Health, adding that the current pace is no reference for the future pace.
According to virologist Marc Van Ranst (KU Leuven), it makes little difference whether the vaccine is administered five or six months after the last shot. “Maybe we should be a bit less strict about that. Today, people with breakthrough infections are being hospitalised. If you can avoid that with a third shot, you should definitely consider it,” he told De Morgen.
The vaccination coverage rate is also higher overall in Flanders – 80% of all people are fully vaccinated, in Brussels and Wallonia just 56% and 70%, respectively – meaning more shots need to be administered.
Across Belgium, vaccination centres started closing their doors as the first campaign started to slow down, and while regions like Brussels – where the vaccination rollout was slower – started launching alternative vaccination points, Flanders had focused its campaign on larger vaccination centres.
At the start of October, the Flemish government announced vaccination centres would remain open until the end of 2021, but restarting these large-scale operations takes time, according to Gudrun Briat, spokesperson for the vaccination task force. “While some centres were closing or merging, they suddenly had to speed up. That reorganisation had a delaying effect.”
Meanwhile, finding resources to staff the centres is also proving an issue in Flanders. To quicken the pace for health care workers, who have started receiving invitations for third doses, vaccines will be administered in hospitals where staff work where possible, Briat told The Brussels Times.
From mid-December, all people who received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson jab, of which the efficacy reduces quicker than the other jabs, will be invited to get a second shot from mid-December.
Last week, it was announced Belgium’s general population will receive a booster dose of a coronavirus vaccine next year.