Pfizer vaccine could be ‘tuned up’ to fight other diseases

British immunology expert hails ‘extraordinary’ coronavirus breakthrough

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Pfizer’s landmark vaccine can be “tuned up” to fight Covid mutations and even other diseases for which there is no cure, a leading British immunology expert says.

It comes a day after the US pharmaceutical giant said early clinical results showed its vaccine had a 90 per cent effectiveness rate.

The company is applying for emergency approval in the US ahead of a possible global rollout next month.

Scientists welcomed the news as a critical moment in the world’s fight against coronavirus.

Professor Peter Openshaw, experimental medicines professor at Imperial College London and former head of the British Society for Immunology, told The National that the breakthrough was "extraordinary".

Prof Openshaw said the RNA vaccine - a new type of vaccine - was “very flexible” and could serve as a base for the development of other inoculations.

He said: “It definitely accelerates this type of vaccine technology, which is applicable not only to Covid-19, but to a wide range of different pathogens for which will still desperately need vaccines.

“It’s also very tuneable in that if the virus mutates it is a relatively short route to tuning up the vaccine to match the latest circulating strains.”

RNA vaccines use a tiny fragment of the virus's genetic code to prepare the immune system for an attack.

It works by harnessing human cells to become their own miniature vaccine factories, by delivering genetic instructions that prompt the body to produce virus proteins – without exposing the body to it.

Once antigens are built up by the body it is ready to fight the real thing.

In contrast, conventional vaccines essentially inject people with a dead, weakened, or part of a virus so the body makes antibodies against it, as it would in a natural infection.

Prof Openshaw said it was “much easier” to update an RNA vaccine for mutations.

However, he urged Pfizer to release the data behind its findings because there were still many unanswered questions.

“It is disappointing that at the moment we are just going on the press release,” he added.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 8, 2020, a nurse shows a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine produced by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech at Sao Lucas Hospital in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil.  Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech on November 10, 2020 stood by the safety of its Covid-19 vaccine after Brazilian regulators halted trials in the South American country citing an "adverse incident" involving a volunteer recipient. / AFP / SILVIO AVILA
More than 100 vaccines against Covid-19 are being developed around the world. AFP

Others including Health Secretary Matt Hancock also urged caution on Tuesday.

He said the UK government - which ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine - was yet to see final safety data.

"If that fails, it doesn't matter how effective it is, we won't deploy it," Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He said the UK faced what he called a mammoth logistical operation in distributing the vaccine.

Among the considerations are storage, as the vaccine needs to be kept at a temperature of between -70C and -80C.

Foreshadowing potential challenges, Prof Openshaw said “no GP surgery would have a -80 freezer”.

He said: “We need alternatives to be tested to see which approach works best and whether there are developments that are easier.

“Distributing an unstable RNA in places where temperatures are high, where vaccines are desperately needed, are virtually impossible.”

Despite a general message of calm from governments, global stock markets were sent into a flurry at the news.

Pfizer's own shares climbed 9 per cent, while the FTSE 100 jumped nearly 5 per cent.

The European Commission also rushed to announce it would sign off on a purchase of 300 million doses on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a leading scientific adviser to the UK government reaffirmed his prediction that life would return to normal by spring.

Sir John Bell, a Canadian-born professor of medicine at Oxford University, was asked whether it was his “natural Canadian optimism” or if he had a scientific basis for such a forecast.

He replied: “I think there is a risk that people will underestimate the importance of the announcement yesterday. And that is, that the big challenge here was to find a vaccine that had efficacy against this virus.

“There are many pathogens for which we have looked for decades and not found a vaccine that works.

“Malaria - we don’t have a vaccine, HIV - we don’t have a vaccine. I think everybody has taken it for a given that we will produce a vaccine.”

Prof Bell said the news suggested that other leading potential vaccines in late-stage trials could prove similarly effective.

He told MPs: "I wouldn't be surprised if we hit the new year with two or three vaccines, all of which could be distributed.

"I'm quite optimistic of getting enough vaccinations done in the first quarter of next year that, by spring, things will start to look much more normal than they do now."

Prof Bell said he believed there was a 70-80 per cent chance of that scenario unfolding.

Mr Hancock added that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, another global front runner, was progressing well.

Earlier, the health secretary put the NHS on notice to be ready to distribute a coronavirus vaccine within three weeks.

Mr Hancock also announced the UK would start rolling out twice-a-week Covid tests to all NHS staff to protect patients and health workers.

He said: "(Rapid) tests allow us, from today, to begin rolling out twice-weekly testing for all NHS staff, which will help keep people safe when they go into hospital, and help keep my wonderful colleagues in the NHS safe too.”