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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 27 February 2021

'Jury still out' on whether new vaccines are needed for mutant variants

Oxford Vaccine Group head Andrew Pollard reassures public over effectiveness of Covid-19 shot

Surge testing for Covid-19 in London after cases of the South African variant were discovered in the UK. Reuters 
Surge testing for Covid-19 in London after cases of the South African variant were discovered in the UK. Reuters 

The head of the Oxford Vaccine Group said on Tuesday that “the jury is still out” on whether the world needs a new batch of Covid-19 vaccines to deal with mutant variants.

Prof Andrew Pollard’s remarks came after South Africa paused its inoculation campaign when a study showed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine provided minimal protection against infection or mild illness among young people from the dominant variant in that country.

Fears of a much longer battle with the pathogen are increasing, despite the hope brought by widespread vaccination campaigns.

However, AstraZeneca and Oxford University aim to produce a next generation of vaccines that will protect against variants as soon as the Northern hemisphere's autumn.

Prof Pollard said that there was no cause for alarm as current vaccines were still capable of preventing serious illness and death.

He said that the South African study indicated that the virus could be in circulation for a long time even if vaccines mitigated the more harmful health effects of Covid-19.

“It’s telling us about the future of this virus. It will still find ways of transmitting and causing mild infection, such as colds,” Prof Pollard said.

"There are definitely new questions about variants that we're going to be addressing. And one of those is: do we need new vaccines?

"I think the jury is out on that at the moment but all developers are preparing new vaccines, so if we do need them we'll have them available to be able to protect people.”

Prof Pollard said that the South African government was right to analyse its AstraZeneca vaccine programme because the original plan was to use it in young adults – particularly healthcare workers – who were not expected to suffer from severe illness.

But he said that the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford study did not measure protection against severe disease, hospital admission or death as only 2,000 volunteers who had a median age of 31 were involved in trials.

"I think there's clearly a risk of confidence in the way that people may perceive you. But as I say I don't think that there is any reason for alarm today," Prof Pollard said.

"The really important question is about severe disease and we didn't study that in South Africa, because that wasn't the point of that study – we were specifically asking questions about young adults."

Meanwhile, England's deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said that the South African variant was unlikely to become the dominant strain in the UK.

“There is no reason to think the South African variant will catch up or overtake our current virus in the next few months,” he said.

He said that there was “plenty of evidence” that the vaccines currently being used were effective against the most dominant virus.

People should accept the vaccine being offered to them, he said.

Prof Van-Tam said that the aim was to shift the curve of the virus so the illness could be manageable in the community, rather than in hospitals.

“We can do that through vaccination and if we do that, we open up a whole way of living normally, or much more normally, again in the future,” he said.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that there were more patients in hospital with Covid-19 in the UK than during last year’s April and November peaks.

But he said that more than 12.2 million people were vaccinated, or almost one in four adults in the UK.

He said it was crucial to maintain a robust testing programme to ensure new variants don't undermine the protection already by vaccines.

Mr Hancock said that while the number of deaths from Covid-19 and people in hospital with the disease were still too high, both were falling and the UK was “turning a corner in our battle against coronavirus".

He urged people over 70 to contact the National Health Service had they not yet been vaccinated.

Updated: February 9, 2021 03:59 PM

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