Vaccines that protect against the new Covid-19 variants should be ready by October, the team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab has said.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, announced that work on designing a new vaccine is expected to be completed rapidly.
The news comes after studies have shown that variants of coronavirus with the E484K mutation could render vaccines less effective, although the jabs are still expected to offer good protection against illness and severe disease.
Protecting against mutant strains
The mutation has been found in the South African variant of the virus, leading to surge-testing being carried out in eight postcode areas of England in an effort to trace community transmission.
It has also been detected in Bristol in the variant first identified in Kent, and in Liverpool in a new variant of the original pandemic strain.
Prof Pollard said: “I think the actual work on designing a new vaccine is very, very quick because it’s essentially just switching out the genetic sequence for the spike protein, for the updated variants.
“And then there’s manufacturing to do and then a small-scale study.
“So all of that can be completed in a very short period of time, and the autumn is really the timing for having new vaccines available for use rather than for having the clinical trials run.”
Prof Pollard explained that it is likely that clinical trials on new vaccines for dealing with the Covid-19 variants will involve “hundreds” of people at the most, as researchers don’t need to run such large-scale studies to prove the efficacy of the vaccine, making the process much quicker.
However, he cautioned that social distancing will need to continue for now, despite recent positive findings that the Oxford vaccine shows a substantial effect on reducing virus transmission.
He added: “I think one of the things that we know about these new variants is that they are making changes that allow them to avoid human immune responses so that they can still transmit.
“So that does mean that it’s likely over time that the virus will find ways of adapting and continue to pass between people despite natural infection and immunity after that, or from the vaccines.“That doesn’t mean that we won’t still have protection against severe disease, because there’s lots of different ways in which our immune system fights the virus – it is much more about the virus being able to continue to survive, rather than for it to cause harm to us.”
The news that a vaccine to protect against new Covid-19 variants will be ready later this year comes following the positive results from the rollout of the Oxford vaccine so far, with scientists at Oxford University revealing the jab could have already begun to stop the virus from spreading.
A single dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce transmission of the virus by two thirds, studies have shown.
Researchers said that the first dose of the Oxford jab offers protection of 76 per cent up to three months, and may cut transmission by 62 per cent. This efficacy then rises to 82.4 per cent after the second dose is administered 12 weeks later.
The data from the study by the University of Oxford supports the four to 12-week interval between doses that many global regulators, including the UK’s, have recommended.
Before these results, little was known about how effective the coronavirus vaccines were at preventing transmission of the disease.
The findings indicate that those who have been vaccinated are not only protected from infection, but they are not likely to pass the virus on to anyone else.
It also suggests that the vaccine eliminates severe illness, as none of the participants in the study were admitted to hospital with coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast: “We know from earlier trials that the vaccines are safe and effective at protecting the individual.
“We now know that the Oxford vaccine also reduces transmission and that will help us all to get out of this pandemic, frankly, which is why it is such good news that we should welcome.”
Mr Hancock told Times Radio that the number of people in hospital is coming down and deaths will drop, and said the Oxford data means “we can have a high degree of confidence that that will come down quickly”.
He also said that data showing that delaying the second dose of the vaccine by up to 12 weeks could increase its efficacy “categorically” supports the government’s strategy of stretching the time limit between doses.
Speaking to Sky News he said: “This Oxford report is very good news, it backs the strategy that we’ve taken and it shows the world that the Oxford vaccine works effectively.”