Vaccines specifically designed to tackle new variants of coronavirus should be ready to be rolled out by October, according to the team behind the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford vaccine group, said work on designing a new jab could be a quick process.
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Studies have shown that variants of COVID-19 that have the E484K mutation could reduce the efficacy of vaccines, but they are still expected to provide good protection against illness and severe disease.
The mutation is present in the variant first identified in South Africa, with more than 100 cases of that variant detected in the UK so far.
E484K has also been found in Bristol in the variant first recorded in Kent, and in Liverpool in a new variant on the original strain of coronavirus that first came to the UK.
“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,” Professor Pollard told a media briefing held by AstraZeneca.
“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.”
Sir Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca, said: “Our ambition is to be ready for the next round of immunisations that may be necessary as we go into next winter. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
He continued: “We’re very much aiming to try and have something ready by the autumn. So, this year.”
Professor Pollard said clinical trials for such new vaccines would involve “hundreds” of people at the most.
“That’s a discussion which is ongoing with regulators about exactly what the data package is that they would need,” he said.
“The reason why it’s such a small number is because, with an updated vaccine, the question is whether immune responses still look the same but against the new variants as they emerge.
“We don’t need to run studies on a large scale to prove efficacy. And so that’s why they’re much quicker and much smaller to conduct.”
It comes after research published on Monday found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may have a “substantial effect” on transmission of the virus.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, also found that a three-month gap between doses does not lower protection.
Professor Pollard said social distancing would need to continue for now, despite the finding that the vaccine may have an effect on transmission.
“The biology of these viruses is that they are going to evolve to be able to evade human immunity,” he said.
“And so many of the new mutations that we’re seeing are likely to allow ongoing transmission in the future.
“What we know is if you match the vaccine well to the virus that’s circulating – as we have – that you can have an impact both on infection and therefore on transmission, as well as on people getting severe disease and hospitalisation.
“But we need to continue to watch this space and to see what gets thrown at us next.”
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