CORONAVIRUS vaccines are currently being rolled out across the country to the most vulnerable.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca offering was first administered on January 4 – but will the jab protect you against the South African variant of the virus?
Brits across the country have been receiving the Oxford/AstraZeneca jabCredit: Getty Images – Getty
So far 9.2 million Brits have had their first dose of a Covid vaccine with nearly half a million having received their second.
However it was today revealed that 11 people had tested positive for the South African variant despite having not travelled to the country.
Mass testing is now being rolled out in eight areas in order to stop the variant spreading further.
The vaccine rollout in the UK has been hailed as the “way out” of the pandemic but as new strains emerge such as the South African variant, scientists are having to grapple with the fact that they may have to adapt their vaccines to fight new variants.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference this evening, Dr Susan Hopkins, adviser to Public Health England (PHE) said three of the vaccines that have been used to date in trials have been shown to be effective against the South African strain.
She said this was at a level “greater than what was set as the minimum standard” by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is 50 per cent.
Dr Hopkins continued: “We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisations and deaths.
“We are 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.”
Dr Susan Hopkins this evening explained that vaccines would work against the South African strain Credit: Sky News
Experts have however previously warned that the South African strain could escape some effects of antibodies.
Trials conducted in South Africa have also suggested the vaccines are less effective against the mutation.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, like the Pfizer offering, is given in two doses.
Just last week the experts behind the Oxford vaccine said they were working on their Covid jab to assess whether or not it work work against new strains.
The scientists are working on estimating how quickly they could reconfigure their technology, should the challenge ever arise in order to attack new variants.
It is hoped they will be able to make tweaks within just 48 hours notice.
A University of Oxford spokesman said: “It is known that viruses constantly change through mutation… These changes are being monitored closely by scientists, and it’s important we continue to remain vigilant for changes in the future.
“The University of Oxford is carefully assessing the impact of new variants on vaccine immunity and evaluating the processes needed for rapid development of adjusted Covid-19 vaccines if these should be necessary.”
The South African variant has become the dominant strain in the country and experts have warned that while vaccine will still work – they may not be as effective.
Prof Lawrence Young, Virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Warwick today said the spike protein of the virus makes it more contagious.
He said: “The South African variant also has other changes in the spike protein which appear to provide some escape from immune recognition – it prevents virus infection from being blocked by certain monoclonal antibodies and may contribute to a reduction in the effectiveness of current vaccines.
“This possibility is supported by recent data from both the Novavax and Janssen vaccine trials which show significant reductions in the ability of the vaccines to protect from disease in South Africa the UK or USA.”
There are three important figures when considering how effective the Oxford vaccine is – 62 per cent, 70 per cent and 90 per cent.
Data published in medical journal The Lancet in December 2020 showed a two dose regimen of the Oxford jab was 62 per cent effective in preventing serious illness.
But the trial also found that efficacy rose to 90 per cent when people were given half a dose followed by a full dose a month later.
However, the MHRA approved a two-dose regimen – so Brits will not receive half a dose in any case.
According to the UK’s Joint Committee of Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI), the jab provides 70 per cent protection 22 days after the first dose.
The UK has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine- enough to vaccinate 50 million people.
Experts today added that other measures such as hand hygiene an social distancing would need to be continued while the impact of the strain is measured.
Prof Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “We know that some coronavirus variants might be less easily killed by antibodies raised against some of the existing vaccines, but the levels of immunity are hopefully still sufficient to prevent serious disease.
“But we can’t be certain that vaccine immunity might not be adversely impacted, especially after a single dose, which is why it is important to try to prevent these variants from spreading widely.
“That will mean effective social distancing and identifying where the variants are currently circulating, so we can stop them in their tracks through effective testing, track and trace and isolating infected individuals.”
Aside from data from the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, Novavax said its vaccine has 60 per cent efficacy against the South African strain – it had previously been found to be 89 per cent effective against the UK strain.
The Janssen jab had previously been found to be 72 per cent effective but feel to 57 per cent with the South African variant.
Experts have also previously warned the South African variant may also be capable of evading testing.
It makes it much harder to track how many cases of the South African strain there truly are, scientists say, but not impossible.
By comparison, the other new and rapidly spreading strain that emerged in the UK can be distinguished with testing, and so can be tracked in “real time”.
The only way to grasp how many people have been infected with the South African strain is to use genetic sequencing.
Scientists already sequence a fraction – 10 per cent – of PCR tests in order to analyse what strains are in circulation.
JABS ARE EFFECTIVE
There had been some concerns that the South African strain could get round vaccines, but experts say that the vaccines currently deployed across the UK are effective.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One “It is clear from the evidence that we have got so far that that is still the case.
“It may be the case that they are just slightly less efficient than they are against the original Wuhan virus, but doesn’t mean that they are not useful.
“These vaccines are much more effective than we dared hope 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.”