Britons face needing a third jab this year amid concerns about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness against the South African coronavirus variant.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was forced to defend the vaccine after a new study in South Africa found it was not effective at preventing mild illness caused by the more infectious mutation.
South Africa has suspended the rollout of the British-designed vaccine to healthcare staff following the results, which have yet to be peer reviewed.
Mr Zahawi urged the public to keep faith with the Oxford jab as scientists working on the vaccine raised the prospect of having a booster dose available by the autumn.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the minister said: “While it is right and necessary to prepare for the deployment of an updated vaccine, we can take confidence from the current roll out and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease.
“We need to be aware that even where a vaccine has reduced efficacy in preventing infection there may still be good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death. This is vitally important for protecting the healthcare system.”
It comes as the number of people in the UK who have received a first dose of a vaccine passed the 12 million mark, with jabs administered at a rate of almost 1,000 per minute during a one hour period over the weekend.
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Scientists agreed more research is required into the level of protection the Oxford vaccine affords against the South African variant but some expressed concern over the preliminary findings from the southern hemisphere.
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told Times Radio: “I think we can still win; it’s just got so much tougher again.”
But he added: “I think the number of variants that can come out of this spike antigen is finite, and we’re not going to be playing this catch-up game forever. “There is an end in sight and there is tweaking to be done, but I think we’ll get there. “The sort of biggest worry is that it’s not just about South Africa, is it, it’s about our homegrown versions, and the modification to the Kent variant, and the idea that we’ve got to be so on our guard and track and tracing it so carefully that we don’t expand our homegrown version.”
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AstraZeneca said on Sunday the fact the study into the E484K mutation involved 2,000 people who were mostly young and healthy meant it had “not been able to properly ascertain” whether it prevented against severe illness and hospital admission.
But the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant said it believed “our vaccine will still protect against severe disease” as the neutralising antibody activity is “equivalent to other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease”.
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Professor Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford vaccine’s lead researcher, said her team was working on having an adapted version of their jab that could tackle the South Africa mutation – of which cases have been found in England – “available for the autumn”.
She said: “This year we expect to show that the new version of the vaccine will generate antibodies that recognise the new variant. Then it will be very much like working on flu vaccines. It looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”
Mr Zahawi said he and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, agreed there was likely to be a follow-up jab programme later in the year.
“We see very much probably an annual or booster in the autumn and then an annual (jab), in the way we do with flu vaccinations where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, rapidly produce a variant of vaccine and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
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