AstraZeneca says its new Covid booster jab tackling vaccine-resistant variants is on track to be ready by the autumn
- Oxford University and AstraZeneca are on track to rollout a new Covid vaccine
- Jab manufacturers say they will will start clinical trials for vaccine in the spring
- CEO of AstraZeneca said its current vaccine provides a ‘good level of protection’
AstraZeneca is on track to roll out a new booster vaccine that will tackle coronavirus variants by autumn, the firm said today.
Its current Covid vaccine, developed by Oxford University and being rolled out en masse in Britain, targets earlier versions of the virus.
Growing evidence suggests that while the jab in its current state stops severe symptoms from all Covid strains, it may not prevent vaccinated people catching some of the newer variants and experiencing mild symptoms.
AstraZeneca said the new jab will be ready in ‘six to nine months’, with human trials expected to start at some point in the spring.
Tweaking the current jab to target new variants is a much simpler process than making a new vaccine from scratch, experts say. For comparison, Oxford managed to develop the original one and have it rolled out around the world in under a year.
It comes as a number of studies have suggested the E484K mutation, which was first found in the South African variant of the virus and is now cropping up in strains in Britain, reduces the potency of the current crop of vaccines.
The findings suggest some people may still be at risk of picking up the virus and passing it to others, but there is no evidence they would suffer anything other than mild symptoms.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said the company’s current vaccine provides a ‘good level of protection’ against severe disease caused by the new variants, but will need to be adapted to prevent milder symptoms.
The update could be used either as a booster for people who have already had a different vaccine or it could be used on its own for those who are still unvaccinated.
AstraZeneca is on track to roll out a new booster vaccine that will tackle coronavirus variants by autumn, the firm said today
AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, said the new jab will be ready in ‘six to nine months’, with human trials expected to start at some point in the spring
There are now six variants of coronavirus being investigated by Public Health England, five of which have already been found in the UK
Meanwhile Mr Soriot said the UK should start seeing a decline in hospital admissions from the disease ‘very soon’ thanks to the Government’s rapid programme with hopes for it to start having a marked impact from March.
It comes as Number 10 sources told The Sun hospitalisation rates among the 12.6million Britons who’ve been vaccinated have also reportedly starting falling to a ‘fraction of previous levels’.
Public Health England chiefs monitoring the UK’s mammoth vaccination rollout have not yet released any actual data detailing the real-world efficacy of either jab. Initial results are expected within days.
AstraZeneca said it is set to deliver 100 million doses of its current vaccine globally in February before doubling to 200 million a month by April.
Mr Soriot said: ‘One hundred million doses in February means 100 million vaccinations, which means hundreds of thousands of severe infections avoided and it also means thousands of deaths that are avoided.’
‘We’re going to save thousands of lives and that’s why we come to work every day as individuals,’ he added.
It comes as the Kent coronavirus variant may become the most dominant strain in the world, the director of the UK’s genetic surveillance programme claimed today.
More than 50 countries have already spotted the mutant B.1.1.7 strain, which evolved to become more infectious than the original virus.
Professor Sharon Peacock, head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (Cog-UK) Consortium said the variant ‘is going to sweep the world, in all probability’.
It is already the dominant strain across the UK but all the evidence suggests current vaccines work against it.
But there are fears the variant has started to mutate further to become more like the one that evolved in South Africa, which is better able to resist immunity developed by past infection or from the current vaccines.
SINGLE SHOT OF OXFORD’S JAB 76% EFFECTIVE FOR 12 WEEKS
A single shot of Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine is 76 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic illness and may have a ‘substantial effect’ on transmission, research suggests.
In a huge boost to the UK’s immunisation drive, analysis of the jab trials found the first dose was extremely successful in preventing people from falling ill within the 12-week time window between getting a second dose.
When the second dose is administered after three months, the jab’s efficacy is bumped up to 82.4 per cent, according to the study, which has been submitted to The Lancet for publication.
The results, from more than 17,000 trial volunteers, suggest Britain’s vaccination gamble to delay its dosing regimen has paid off.
In a bid to get wider vaccine coverage quicker, regulators pivoted from their original plan to give people their second dose after 21 days when the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab was approved in late December.
They pushed back the second dose for 12 weeks in the hope that giving partial protection to as many vulnerable people as possible would drive down hospital admissions.
Boris Johnson tweeted: ‘Really encouraging data from a new study today shows the Oxford/AZ vaccine provides significant protection against the virus.’
The strategy has helped make Britain a world-leader in vaccinations, with 9.6million people now injected with at least a single dose of either Pfizer’s or AstraZeneca’s jab.
Meanwhile, analysis of PCR positive swabs carried out on nearly 7,000 patients in the UK arm of Oxford’s trial suggests the vaccine may reduce transmission by 67 per cent.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the findings as ‘hugely encouraging’, adding: ‘It further reinforces our confidence that vaccines are capable of reducing transmission and protecting people from this awful disease.’
Dr Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, said the study suggested the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could be the ‘holy grail’.
He added: ‘The data support the recommendation to delay the second dose of the Oxford vaccine out to 12 weeks.
‘If these vaccines reduce transmission to the extent reported, it will mean that the easing of social restrictions will be enabled sooner, than if we have to wait for herd immunity, which may never in fact be achieved because of insufficient vaccine population coverage.
‘That would be the holy grail of the global vaccine rollout, and these data bring us one step closer.’
Professor Peacock said her work sequencing variants could be needed for at least 10 years.
Meanwhile a senior SAGE scientist has warned that the coronavirus variant detected in Bristol has the ‘potential’ to reinfect vaccinated Britons
Professor John Edmunds said it could be ‘very dangerous’ to the UK’s mammoth jab drive if the mutant strain is allowed to spread around the country.
Public Health England has so far found 21 cases of this version of the virus, with 14 in Bristol, four in Manchester and three ‘scattered’ across the rest of the UK.
It is an evolved version of the Kent variant – the dominant strain of the virus in the UK – which has mutated further to develop a change first found on the South African strain that makes vaccines slightly less effective.
The alteration, scientifically known as E484K, is thought to play a key role in helping the strains ‘hide’ from the immune system.
Therefore manufacturers need to be extremely specific with their vaccines in order to offer the best form of protection due to the spike protein that the jabs target.
Vaccinating someone introduces a part of the virus to the body so the immune system can mould antibodies to it and then store them in case it comes into contact with the real, live virus in the future.
When the virus mutates and changes shape – as its spike protein has in coronavirus cases caused by the South Africa variant and the ones found in Brazil and Kent – these antibodies can become outdated and less successful at targeting the virus.
Top Government advisers insist the current crop should still work — but may be slightly less effective.
If the immune system has a weaker line of defence against the virus because of this, it raises the risk of people getting reinfected or getting sick despite having been immunised.
Developing new vaccines based on this changed version of the virus should overcome this problem.
Oxford’s Professor Andrew Pollard, who is leading studies of the jab, said last Wednesday it would be a ‘short process’ compared to making the original vaccine from scratch.
Professor Pollard said it was ‘very difficult to know’ which mutations and variants would pose the biggest problems by the autumn this year.
But he said: ‘At this moment, researchers are looking at current variants that are dominating… I suspect that this is going to be an ongoing challenge to follow what the virus is doing.’
The main worrying variants at the moment are B.1.1.7, found in England; B.1.351, which emerged in South Africa; and P.1, from Brazil.
The South African and Brazilian variants both have a mutation called E484K, which changes the spike protein in a way that makes vaccines less effective.
A study in South Africa found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to viruses with this E484K mutation. One researcher said it was ‘clear that we have a problem’.
And cases of the English Kent variant have also been found with the same mutation, although it is not yet a permanent feature of that strain.
Professor Pollard said earlier last Wednesday that he expects the E484K mutation and future changes to the virus to reduce how well the current vaccines work.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘That mutation is a really interesting one because it is in a bit of the spike protein that most of us try and make antibodies against, and so it’s highly likely that that will have a big impact on the immune response from all the vaccines…
‘I think all developers are looking at updated vaccines at this moment so there will be vaccines that are tested – and that’s a relatively short process – in order to make sure that we are prepared if these mutations result in ongoing severe disease.
‘But I think there is a bit of hope in that, when we look at studies that have been done of the vaccines from any country in the world, including those with the variants, if they look at severe disease in those studies then we’re still seeing very good protection.’
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