Vaccine hopes on mutant strain

Vaccine hopes on mutant strain: Scientists say they believe UK jabs WILL offer major protection against South African mutation of Covid-19

  • Dr Susan Hopkins  raised hopes of effectiveness of Pfizer and Oxford jabs
  • Johnson & Johnson and Navavax jabs effective against South African variant
  • Britain has 30 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on order

Vaccines are not as effective against the mutant South African strain – but should still prevent serious illness and death, health chiefs said yesterday.

Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, raised hopes the Pfizer and Oxford jabs will effectively tackle the variant.

Two other vaccines – from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax – proved effective in trials in South Africa. They were found to provide around 60 per cent protection against the mutant infection, compared to almost 90 per cent for classic Covid.

Importantly, none of those infected in South Africa ended up in hospital or dead.

Vaccines are not as effective against the mutant South African strain – but should still prevent serious illness and death, health chiefs said yesterday

Dr Hopkins said: ‘We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death. We’re doing detailed laboratory studies at the moment with the South African variant growing in the labs, so that we will be able to estimate that with greater robustness over the next couple of weeks.’

The single-shot jab from Johnson & Johnson provided 57 per cent protection against moderate to severe Covid in the South African clinical trials. Britain has 30 million doses of the jab on order, with an option to buy 22 million more.

Meanwhile the vaccine from Novavax, which will supply 60 million doses to the UK, was found to be 60 per cent effective in preventing mild, moderate and severe Covid in its South African trial, where people did not have HIV. Both vaccines provided 100 per cent protection against hospitalisation or death.

At the weekend, Dr Hopkins described the results as ‘reassuring news’ on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, adding: ‘I think it’s hard to imagine how the different vaccines won’t have similar levels of effectiveness – I think they would have at least 50 per cent, maybe even more.’

Yesterday, speaking at the Downing Street press conference, she dispelled fears that people recently vaccinated would have to start over again because of the risk from new strains. Dr Hopkins said: ‘It is unlikely that people would have to start (the vaccine treatment) again, it is much more likely that it would be a booster shot – a bit like the annual flu vaccine.’

The single-shot jab from Johnson & Johnson provided 57 per cent protection against moderate to severe Covid in the South African clinical trials. Britain has 30 million doses of the jab on order, with an option to buy 22 million more

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation, also said yesterday that the vaccines currently deployed in the UK are likely to tackle the South African variant.

Experts had feared its mutations may cause problems for the jabs, which were designed to tackle previous strains, such as the original one which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But Professor Finn told Radio 4’s The World at One: ‘It may be the case that they are just slightly less efficient than they are against the original Wuhan virus, but that doesn’t mean that they are not useful.

‘These vaccines are much more effective than we dared hope for in the first place, so some reduction in their efficiency is not a disaster. It is just making life more difficult. We do have to recognise that we are facing a very agile enemy. We have to up our game, get better and more efficient ways of tracking these new variants as they arrive.’

Ministers are increasingly confident of hitting their target of vaccinating the 15 million most vulnerable by mid-February.

Figures show 9,790,576 Covid jabs have now been given, of which 9,296,367 were first doses. That means 407,402 first doses would be needed each day in order to meet the target of 15 million first doses by February 15.

Q&A: What is the South African variant?

By Eleanor Hayward Health Correspondent

What is the South African variant?

It was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province in mid-October.

Like the UK’s Kent variant, the mutant strain quickly became dominant and drove a ferocious second wave.

There are two key mutations that give it an advantage – these are called N501Y and E484K.

The N501Y mutation, which is also found in the Kent variant, means it can bind to cells more easily and is more infectious.

The E484K mutation is more worrying because it may help the virus evade antibodies, allowing reinfections and making vaccines less effective.

The variant was first seen in the UK before Christmas, prompting a travel ban on South Africa.

Why the sudden concern?

Around 105 cases have been found in the UK. Until yesterday, they could all be linked to international travel. But 11 have now been found in people who had not recently travelled abroad.

This suggests it has been spreading in the community, probably after infected people without symptoms flew in.

How widespread is it?

The 11 cases without links to international travel have been found in eight locations, ranging from London to the West Midlands and Merseyside. Most had no contact with each other, suggesting pockets of spread in several locations across England.

The true number of cases in the UK is likely to be considerably higher because the 11 cases were only identified due to the UK’s genomic sequencing programme, which tests a random sample of 5 to 10 per cent of all positive Covid-19 cases.

There is a ‘high probability’ that some of the remaining 95 per cent of positive cases were also the South African strain.

Is it more dangerous?

There is no evidence it is more deadly or makes people more ill. But it is more transmissible than the ‘original’ Covid-19 strain and spreads at a similar rate to the Kent variant, which is up to 70 per cent more infectious.

Of most concern is the high rate of mutations, which may help it ‘escape’ antibodies. Last month, researchers from South Africa found it contained mutations that may be resistant to immunity from earlier Covid infection.

Will the jabs still work?

Health officials have played down concerns that the South African variant could jeopardise the UK’s vaccination programme.

Initial evidence shows existing vaccines are slightly less effective against it, but still offer good protection. For example, the Novavax jab – of which the UK has secured 60million doses – was 60 per cent effective in South African trials, down from 89 per cent elsewhere. Janssen’s oneshot vaccine was 57 per cent effective in South Africa, compared to 72 per cent in the UK.

Tests are ongoing to see if the Pfizer and Oxford jabs – the two being used in the UK – are effective. Yesterday, Boris Johnson said he was ‘confident’ they will work against all variants. More lab results will be available soon.

What happens next?

Public Health England is in a race to break any chains of transmission to effectively rid the UK of the South African variant.

It has launched ‘surge testing’ in affected areas. All adults in eight postcodes – around 80,000 – will be offered tests this week whether or not they have symptoms.

Mobile testing units will be deployed and officials will go door to door urging people to be tested. Positive samples will undergo genomic sequencing to identify which variant they are.

Matt Hancock said: ‘The goal is to find every single case of it.’

Are there going to be stricter rules?

Not yet. However Mr Hancock said anyone living in the affected areas must take ‘extra special precautions’ and not go out.

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