Finland's Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has revealed that elderly citizens and specific risk groups will receive their COVID-19 booster shots this fall using a new variant vaccine. In a synchronized effort to combat the pandemic and seasonal flu, THL recommends administering the COVID-19 booster vaccines alongside the influenza vaccines.

Welfare Regions, termed 'hyvinvointialueet' in Finnish, have the autonomy to expedite vaccinations for their most vulnerable groups based on their discretion.

Shipments of the new XBB.1.5 vaccine are already underway to these areas. These regional authorities will take charge of the vaccine rollout, subsequently informing the public on the availability and schedule.

As of now, Finland has no plans to use its stored BA.4/5 coronavirus vaccines as booster doses this autumn.

Some European countries have already opted or are considering to fast-track their vaccination schedules for those at the highest risk of severe illness even before the flu shots.

"The current situation regarding COVID-19 in Finland is stable. However, health officials must be prepared for the possibility that the most vulnerable, due to their age or underlying health conditions, might need their booster shots earlier than planned. This includes, for instance, elderly individuals in long-term care facilities and those with significant immune deficiencies," shared THL's Chief Medical Officer, Hanna Nohynek.

The most significant risk factor for severe COVID-19 remains advanced age. Those aged above 80 have a higher probability of contracting a severe form of the disease compared to those over 65, the latter of which are also recommended to receive the booster dose.

The XBB.1.5 variant-specific vaccine recently obtained its sales permit at the start of September. Based on the current joint procurement agreement, over a million doses will arrive in Finland this September. The precise number might fluctuate depending on the successful extraction of extra doses from the vials.

THL's guidelines for the fall 2023 COVID-19 booster shots are directed at people aged 65 and above, those 18 and older belonging to medical risk groups, and children over 12 with significant immune deficiencies. These specific groups are prioritized for booster shots, anticipating a potential resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the colder months. The aim of the new booster shot is to reduce the number of severe cases, hospitalizations, and related deaths.

There's no medical justification to vaccinate the entire population. For individuals under 65 without conditions predisposing them to severe COVID-19, the initially recommended three vaccine doses, including any prior infections, continue to offer robust protection against severe forms of the disease. It's not expected that the XBB.1.5 vaccines will provide substantial protection against mild COVID-19 cases or infections.

THL remains vigilant, monitoring the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines, the frequency of hospital admissions, and accumulating research data. Any modifications to the vaccination guidelines will be made based on medical evidence.