The minister responsible for the coronavirus vaccine rollout has suggested annual jabs or a “booster in the autumn” could be required to combat new variants of the disease.
Nadhim Zahawi’s remarks came as official government data showed on Sunday that over 12 million people in Britain had now received a first dose of a Covid vaccine — putting the government on course to reach the 15 February target of inoculating 15 million in high priority groups.
As Boris Johnson prepares to tell the nation how the government will begin unwinding the lockdown in two weeks, Mr Zahawi insisted he was confident the NHS would be able to reach the new “tough” target of immunising all those over the age of 50 by May.
On Sunday, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford said their vaccine, which has enabled the UK to vastly accelerate its rollout programme, has been found to provide only limited protection against mild and moderate disease caused by the South African variant.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, was conducted by South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford University. It analysed the E484K mutation in more than 2,000 people, with most of the participants considered young and healthy.
In a statement, an AstraZeneca spokesperson said early data from the “small phase I/II trial” showed “limited efficacy against mild disease primarily due to the B.1.351 South African variant”.
In a separate press release on Sunday, Oxford confirmed the study findings, adding that the vaccine appeared to provide minimal protection for “mild-moderate” Covid-19 infections from the South African variant. More than 100 cases have been found in the UK.
South Africa suspended plans to inoculate its frontline health care workers vaccine in response to the study’s findings. It received its first one million doses last week and was expected to begin the rollout in mid-February, but the disappointing early results indicate that a vaccine drive using the AstraZeneca vaccine may not be useful in the country, where the new variant is dominant.
However, an AstraZeneca spokesperson said the company believes the vaccine could protect against severe disease, with the neutralising antibody activity appearing similar to that demonstrated by other Covid-19 vaccines that have been found to protect against severe disease.
They said researchers have already started adapting the vaccine against the South African variant and would “advance rapidly through clinical development so that it is ready for autumn delivery, should it be needed”.
Oxford vaccine lead researcher Professor Sarah Gilbert provided the same assurances in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, saying: “Maybe we won’t be reducing the number of cases as much, but we still won’t be seeing the deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.
“That’s really important for healthcare systems, even if we are having mild and asymptomatic infections, to prevent people going into hospital with Covid would have a major effect.”
Professor Gilbert added her team has “a version with the South African spike sequence in the works”.
“It’s not quite ready to vaccinate people with yet, but as all of the developers are using platform technologies, these are ways of making a vaccine that are very quick to adapt.”
“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,” she said. “It looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”
Appearing separately on the programme, Mr Zahawi insisted that the UK is able to sequence the genomes of the variants “quickly” and then talk to the manufactures about securing modified versions of vaccines.
He said: “I was speaking to [deputy chief medical officer] Jonathan Van-Tam this morning. 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.”