THE HAGUE: The European Union drugs regulator said Wednesday that people 18 and older can receive a booster shot for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at least two months after their initial shot of the one-dose vaccine.
The European Medicines Agency also said the J&J vaccine can be used as a booster dose in people who have had two shots of the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.
The recommendations by the agency's human medicines committee give countries more flexibility as they roll out or accelerate booster campaigns to tackle the spread of the new omicron variant.
The agency said in a statement that public health bodies in the 27 EU countries may issue official recommendations on the use of booster doses, "taking into account the local epidemiological situation, availability of vaccines, and emerging effectiveness and the limited safety data for the booster dose."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to Johnson & Johnson booster doses in October, both for people who initially received the J&J and vaccine and for people who got immunised with other vaccines.
Johnson & Johnson earlier presented results from a large study that found giving a second dose just two months after the first bumped protection against symptomatic COVID-19 to 94% from 70% in U.S. recipients.
Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that omicron is expected to be the dominant coronavirus variant in the 27-nation bloc by mid-January, amid concerns that a dramatic rise of in infections will leave Europe shrouded in gloom during the festive season.
The head of the EU's executive branch, however, said that the bloc is well prepared to fight omicron, with 66.6% of the European population now fully vaccinated against the virus.
Von der Leyen said she is confident the EU has the "strength" and "means" to overcome the disease, although expressing her disappointment that once again year-end celebrations will be disturbed by the pandemic.
"Like many of you, I'm sad that once again this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic," she said.
The alarming rise of new infections has prompted the implementations of further restrictions across Europe.
The decision this week by Italy to require negative tests from vaccinated visitors has also raised concerns that such moves will limit free movement at a time when many EU citizens travel to see their relatives and loved ones.
Portugal adopted a similar measure on December 1, requiring a mandatory negative test for all flights arriving in Portugal, even for people with health passes and regardless of their point of origin or nationality.
Von der Leyen added that the EU is now facing a double challenge, with a massive increase of cases in recent weeks due to the delta variant combined with the rise of omicron, as some member countries are already confronted with a record number of infections.
"We're seeing an increasing number of people falling ill, a greater burden on hospitals and unfortunately an increase in the number of deaths," she told European lawmakers ahead of Thursday's meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.
Von der Leyen insisted that the increase in infections remains due "almost exclusively" to the delta variant.
"And what I'm concerned about is that we now seeing the new variant omicron on the horizon, which is apparently even more infectious."
In Britain, omicron cases are doubling every two to three days and von der Leyen said the new variant seems to be spreading at the same rate in the EU.
According to an analysis Tuesday of data from South Africa, where the new variant is driving a surge in infections, omicron seems to be more easily spread from person to person and better at evading vaccines, but also milder.
Thanks to the high rate of vaccination in the bloc and the availability of vaccine doses, von der Leyen said that Europe is now in a better position to fight the virus.
She said that more than 300 million people in the EU have been fully vaccinated and that 62 million people have gotten a booster jab.
She said 300 million vaccine doses per month can be produced in Europe, and it would take around 100 days to adapt the current coronavirus vaccines to omicron if needed.
"Initial data from omicron shows us that this triple jab is the best protection against the new variant," she said.
She also said it worth fighting vaccine scepticism, especially in member states lagging behind in their vaccination rates.
"Because the price that we will pay if people are not vaccinated continues to increase," she said.
"It's also a problem for our elderly citizens who once again this Christmas can't see their grandchildren. And it's also a problem for those children who once again can't go to school. What kind of a life is that?" Echoing von der Leyen's comments, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed Wednesday that his new government will do everything for Germany to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and let people return to their normal lives.
"We have no time to waste," said Scholz, who took office as Germany grapples with its biggest wave of infections during the pandemic to date.
Scholz also said that the government won't tolerate a tiny minority of extremists trying to impose their will against coronavirus policies.
As governments brace for the holiday season, Greece and a handful of other European Union countries began vaccinating children aged 5-11 on Wednesday against COVID-19.
Italy, Spain and Hungary were also among those countries expanding the vaccination programme to younger children as national agencies formally back the EU regulator's approval last month of the reduced-dose vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech.
Spanish health authorities are stepping up efforts to give out coronavirus vaccine shots before Christmas and end-of-the-year gatherings that usually bring large groups together.
On Wednesday, the same day that the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for 3.3 million children aged between 5 and 11 began across Spain and in other parts of the European Union, regional health authorities in Spain approved widening the scope of those eligible for a booster shot.
After offering third doses to health workers, high-risk groups and those 60 and older during the past two months, Spain will start giving extra shots to people 50 and over, Health Minister Carolina Darias announced at a press conference late Wednesday.
Earlier, during a visit to a school in central Spain where children and their families lined up for their first shots, Darias said vaccination should speed up ahead of the increase in "mobility and social interaction" around Christmas.
"Today is a day charged with emotion," the minister told reporters.
"I'm satisfied and encouraged to see so many parents with their children here."
Spaniards have displayed a strong vaccination acceptance, leading to nearly 90% of residents aged 12 or older being fully vaccinated.
But children under 11, who represent about 7% of the population, are now believed to be one of the groups spreading most infections.
The contagion rate among them, 667 new cases per 100,000 children in two weeks, is nearly 50% higher than the national average of 441 new cases.
Their parents, many of them aged between 40 to 49, show the second-highest rate of infection, 550 new cases per 100,000 people in 14 days.
On Wednesday, Spain reported 27,140 new daily infections, the highest number since the end of July, and 77 more COVID-19 deaths, although hospital admissions are growing at a slower pace than in previous virus surges.
Spain has officially recorded 88,619 virus deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.