COVID-variant vaccines fast-tracked with more investment

As reported by BBC news, the UK government is pledging extra money to fast-track vaccines that fight new variants of coronavirus

Existing vaccines still protect against variants such as those identified in Kent and South Africa – but experts say it is also vital to stay a step ahead of a virus that keeps mutating. The concern is about future variants that might escape this immunity. Meanwhile, a minister says no decision has been made yet as to whether booster jabs will be given to everyone over 50.

Responding to reports in the Times that over-50s would get a third jab before winter, Nadhim Zahawi said it had not yet been decided but NHS teams plan to be ready to give booster jabs from September. Timing of third jabs will depend on how well clinicians believe protection from vaccines has lasted for the most vulnerable groups, Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast, and it could be September “or later in the year, or early next year”.

The extra funding from the government – £29.3m, on top of £19.7m already promised – will boost testing facilities at the Porton Down research laboratory. It will also fund vaccine manufacture.

It means scientists can accelerate the pace and scale of their work, the government says. The cash will allow scientists to test 3,000 blood samples a week, to measure the levels of protective antibodies against COVID-19 generated by different vaccines.

The government is already making plans for a booster COVID-vaccine programme in the autumn, to protect the most vulnerable ahead of winter.

Last week it ordered an extra 60m doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which it said would be used alongside other vaccines for the boosters. And it may use new, updated vaccines that are a better match for emerging variants.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are committed to supporting the UK’s flourishing life-sciences industry – and this announcement is yet another critical way we will build back better to protect the country over the coming months and years.”

UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “A new variant that can escape the current vaccines is the greatest risk of a third wave.

“This new investment will help us stay one step ahead of the virus by doubling our capacity to test vaccine effectiveness against emerging variants.

“While we expect the existing vaccines to offer protection against new variants, particularly preventing serious illness and death, it is important that we continue to monitor the picture as it develops.”

The government has already announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, with 50m doses pre-ordered.

Prof Neil Ferguson, an expert on the spread of infectious diseases who sits on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said new variants emerging posed the biggest risk to the UK’s progress in the pandemic.

“In the worst case scenario, if we have a new variant pop up which does manage to evade the vaccines, say late summer or early autumn, there may be a need to roll back on some of these measures (being eased) at least temporarily until we can boost people’s immunity,” he told the BBC.

“Do I think it’s likely to happen? No, I don’t. I think we are much more likely to be on a steady course now out of this pandemic, at least in this country.”

Prof Ferguson said variants would need to be monitored “carefully”, but the UK had gone from a “terrible situation” in January to a “remarkably good situation now”.

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