The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will not stop people becoming ill if they contract the South African variant of Covid-19, researchers have confirmed, warning that vaccines’ focus needs to shift from population immunity to protecting individuals from hospitalisation and death.
The small study in 2,000 people aged 31, who are less likely to become severely ill, adds to evidence from big trials of other vaccines carried out after the variant appeared in South Africa. Trial data from the Janssen and Novavax vaccines showed efficacy in South Africa was up to 60% against the variant, substantially lower than against the original virus.
“These findings recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic virus and shift the focus from the goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at-risk individuals in population against severe disease,” said Prof Shabir Madhi from the University of the Witwatersrand, who led the Oxford/AstraZeneca trial in South Africa. The data will be published in the coming days.
All the manufacturers are now looking at creating new vaccines to better target the South African variant.
“Efforts are under way to develop a new generation of vaccines that will allow protection to be redirected to emerging variants as booster jabs, if it turns out that it is necessary to do so,” said Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford.
“We are working with AstraZeneca to optimise the pipeline required for a strain change should one become necessary. This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change.”
Gilbert told The Andrew Marr Show that her team had “a version with the South African spike sequence in the works”. She said: “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.
“It looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”
The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said people may need a Covid booster jab in autumn as more variants emerge, although the government is still confident current vaccines will prevent severe symptoms.
“I was speaking to [the deputy chief medical officer] Jonathan Van-Tam this morning, and we see very much probably an annual [vaccine] or a booster in the autumn then an annual [vaccine], the way we do with flu vaccinations,” Zahawi on The Andrew Marr Show.
The minister warned: “The more we vaccinate, the more the virus will attempt to survive and mutate even further.” He said the government was committed to securing “variant vaccines” to keep on top of new strains of the virus.
He cited the government’s deal with the German biotech company CureVac, announced earlier this week, to secure 50m doses of potential new vaccines. “This is part of our future proofing so that when the virus mutates, we are ready for it with a variation of the vaccine,” he said. But: “[The current vaccines] all have some effect on both the UK variant and the South African variant.”
He added: “Though their own trials, AstraZeneca believes [the vaccine] does effectively deal with serious illness and hospitalisation.”
Zahawi told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday nearly 1,000 vaccines a minute were provided in an hour on Saturday morning but that the pace of vaccination could vary in the coming weeks.
“The limiting factor is vaccine supply, so the vaccine supply remains finite. I can tell you that yesterday between 11 and 12 o’clock we almost got to 1,000 jabs a minute, we got to 979 jabs a minute,” he said.
He added: “I’m confident we’ll meet our mid-February target of the top four cohorts. I’m also confident, because I have enough line of sight of deliveries that are coming through, that we will also meet the one to nine cohorts by May.
“It’s a tough target by the way: many, many people who are clinically extremely vulnerable have to be reached by GPs; some can’t travel.”
He added that the UK was starting to store second doses of the vaccine in preparation of providing both first and second doses of vaccines next month.
Zahawi also said the UK was not looking at introducing vaccine passports, and people may have to ask their GP for proof of vaccination if required for entry into other countries.
“I think the right thing to do is make sure people come forward and be vaccinated because they want to rather than it being made in some way mandatory through a passport,” he said.
The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, called for more vaccine doses in poorer areas of the country, where life expectancy is lower, in the next phase of distribution.
“Life expectancy rate varies very widely across the UK. There are places where it is 10 years behind the areas where it is highest, so basically what that means is that, in those areas, people who are in their 60s have the same level of health as people in their 70s in other areas,” he said.
“It also is the case that those same areas where life expectancy is lowest tend to be the places where more people are out at work in those key professions, working in essential retail and supermarkets or driving buses or driving taxis, so clearly they are at greater risk.
“I’m not saying diverge completely from the phased [approach] set out by ages put forward by the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation], but what I am saying is put greater supplies of the vaccine into those areas where life expectancy is lowest and allow greater flexibility for people to be called earlier.”
The mayor also said he would not support a return to the tiered system after the national lockdown ends, saying the approach was “divisive” and did not work.
“It was a divisive approach in the end, and created a lot of confusion amongst the public as to the rules that they were being asked us to follow,” Burnham said. “We don’t believe [the tiers] worked, and the better approach we think would be a phased national release from lockdown.”
The government said on Saturday that businesses with more than 50 employees were now able to access lateral flow tests. Previously only firms with more than 250 staff qualified for testing.
“We’ve reduced that to 50 because we want it to become the norm that people when they go to work, once we are over this lockdown, can be tested rapidly, we’ve got the volumes in place,” the vaccines minister said.