Boris Johnson: UK ready to hand out tweaked vaccine to combat new variants

Unlikely updated vaccine will need to go through full approval process

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19: Staff prepare to give AstraZeneca vaccinations to patients at a Covid-19 vaccination centre set up inside the Bournemouth International Centre on January 19, 2021 in Various Cities, United Kingdom. Ten new mass vaccination centres will start administering covid-19 vaccines in England this week, joining seven existing "hubs," as well as the hospitals and GP practices enlisted in the nationwide effort to give 15 million people a first dose by February 15. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
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The UK is ready to deliver tweaked vaccines to battle new variants of coronavirus as a more infectious Covid-19 pathogen spreads in scores of countries.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, warned on Thursday of the explosive spread of the British variant of the disease could lead to a new wave of deaths higher than those seen so far. For that reason Germany is not going to ease restrictions on lockdown on February 15 as planned but will remain in stay at home mode. "We have to slow the spread as quickly as possible, not just when it is too late and the numbers are already high," she told a press conference in Berlin.

Oxford scientists are studying how quickly they can reconfigure the treatment in response to more infectious strains of the virus first found in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

Boris Johnson on Monday brought in new border restrictions to keep out mutant strains he said could undermine the country's vaccination programme.

Asked about South African data that suggests the virus can "dodge the vaccines and reduce their efficacy", the prime minister said he had spoken to the UK's medicines regulator to make sure tweaked vaccines could be approved swiftly.
"We are confident that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines, as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus," he said.

The MHRA said: “We are in discussion with vaccine manufacturers on potential modifications that may be needed for current vaccines to be effective against new variants, if required.”

The regulator is seeking expert advice, but said: “We can say at this stage that it is unlikely a full new approval process will be needed.”

A University of Oxford spokesman said scientists were carefully assessing the effects of new variants on vaccine immunity and evaluating the processes needed for rapid development of adjusted vaccines.

The UK opened 10 more mass vaccination centres on Thursday. The government is aiming to give 15 million people their first shot by February 15, although there is concern that supply issues could hamper that effort.

London GP Helen Salisbury said some parts of the UK were lagging behind in giving the vaccine to people aged 80 and over.

"There is a problem with supply. It's not that we order the vaccine and we get what we ask for – we wait to see what vaccine we will be given," she told BBC's Radio 4 Today programme.

"I think there're a lot of practices that are ready to get going ... but we don’t have the supply yet."

In pictures – coronavirus in the UK