Belgium's neighbours France and the UK will provide a fourth dose of a coronavirus vaccine to their elderly population, but Belgium will not extend fourth doses beyond those with reduced immunity for the time being.
France started offering a fourth vaccine dose to over-80s who had their booster more than three months ago on Monday; the UK is expected to start offering everyone over 75 years old a second booster dose from April.
"Belgium is also monitoring the need for another booster and paying attention to other countries' decisions. But the general population will not (yet) be offered a fourth dose," Gudrun Briat of the Vaccination Taskforce told The Brussels Times.
"At the moment, there is still too little scientific evidence to justify a fourth shot for the general population, especially in the current context of the epidemic," she added.
Last week, Belgium ended the epidemic emergency phase as all epidemiological indicators were dropping. Now, infection rates and hospitalisations are on the rise again, and while virologist Marc Van Ranst predicts the start of another small wave, he is not too worried.
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So far, Belgium is only administering such a fourth dose to immunocompromised people, such as those with congenital immune disorders, people who receive chronic kidney dialysis, certain HIV patients, people with blood cancer or other malignant tumours or patients who have undergone a stem cell or organ transplant.
In total, it concerns some 400,000 people in Belgium. They have either already received their fourth dose, or will receive it by the end of the month, Briat explained. "In those cases, the third shot completes their basic vaccination schedule. The fourth dose is considered their booster dose.”
However, it is "up to the government" to decide if that fourth shot will be rolled out to the rest of the population, Van Ranst told Het Laatste Nieuws on Wednesday morning. “As long as the severe infections and the impact on intensive care and mortality stay down, I think they will hold off for a bit."
Briat confirmed Van Ranst's comments and added that the taskforce is closely monitoring the epidemiological situation. "A lot of it depends on what happens in the coming months with the infection rates, possible new variants, how long the immunity after the booster campaign remains."
Possible combined Covid and flu vaccine
In any case, there is currently "no indication" that Belgium would start giving second booster doses before the summer, Briat said. "We will have to look into what happens after the summer, when people meet and gather indoors more often and the virus gets more space, as we have seen in the previous years."
"It is possible that we will offer another dose to the elderly and those with underlying conditions, and maybe to healthcare staff then," she said, adding that a decision on this has yet to be made.
Earlier this week, vaccine safety expert and member of the Vaccination Taskforce Jean-Michel Dogné told Le Soir that the Covid-19 vaccine could perhaps be combined with the flu shot by then. "A combined vaccine might be on the market after the summer, but we will only be able to decide on it once it is ready," said Briat.