The team behind the Oxford vaccine is preparing to design new versions of its jab in response to the different coronavirus variants that have emerged in the UK and elsewhere, The Independent understands.
Scientists at the university are currently assessing the ability of their vaccine to provide protection against the British and South African variants that were detected late last year, with the results of this analysis set to be released within the first half of next month.
However, the Oxford University team is adopting an “at risk” approach and intends to begin synthesising new versions of the vaccine without waiting to find out if they will be needed, with Professor Sarah Gilbert – one of the lead scientists – “actively working on this”.
This comes as the prime minister, Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will be able to approve modified vaccines as quickly as required in the face of new and emerging coronavirus variants.
Scientists at Oxford are understood to be confident that their vaccine will not need to be adapted in response to the British variant, known as B117.
Data published by Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday also indicated that their vaccine is likely to provide protection against B117. Analysis is ongoing to determine whether it will be able to neutralise the South African and Brazilian variants.
If modifications to the Oxford vaccine are required, it will take “one day’s worth of work” to make the necessary adjustments before being grown in cell culture within a laboratory.
After that, Oxford’s pharmaceutical partner, AstraZeneca, would be required to once again step in and begin producing new supplies of the modified vaccine before distributing it around the world – a process that would probably take months.
A spokesperson for Oxford University told The Independent: “It is known that viruses constantly change through mutation, leading to the emergence of new variants, and we should expect many new variants to be identified during 2021.
“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 government has meanwhile said it is developing a new rapid pathway to allow the approval of modified vaccines that may be required in the near future.
“We’ve been talking about that with the scientists over the last days and weeks intensively, just in the last few hours,” Mr Johnson said on Wednesday.
“We’re confident that the MHRA will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines, as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus.”
The Independent also understands that additional findings on the vaccine’s efficacy among the elderly will be released next month, along with further data to support the MHRA’s decision to delay the administration of a second dose as part of efforts to stretch current supplies.
After an intense run-up to the vaccine’s approval in December – and because of mounting concerns surrounding the coronavirus variants – Oxford’s leading scientists have now returned to the laboratory and been given time away from media responsibilities.
Experts have warned that uncertainty surrounding the new variants and the prospect of reinfection reaffirms the need for more effective suppression of the virus, rather than relying solely on vaccination.
The South African variant, named 501Y.V2, has sparked particular concern among experts after research showed it may be able to evade parts of the immune response triggered by natural infection.
“This is the argument for you can’t just vaccinate your way out of the pandemic,” Professor Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, told The Independent.
“You have to maintain suppression and everything else, or you’ll end up chasing the different variants with different vaccines – and the virus is always going to win that arms race, always.”
In a recent study of 44 people who had been previously infected during South Africa’s first wave, scientists found that the variant was not recognised by antibodies present within the blood plasma of 21 cases.
“In the other half of those individuals, however, there is some recognition that remains,” said Professor Penny Moore, from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. “I should add those are normally people who were incredibly ill, hospitalised and mounted a very robust response to the virus.”
She said the research made it “clear that we do have a problem”, but she warned against jumping to conclusions without further analysis.
Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute, said the virus “has found a way to escape from previous antibodies”.
“The world has underestimated this virus,” he added. “This virus can evolve. It ... is adapting to us.”
Although more analysis is required to determine how the Covid-19 vaccines will be affected by the South African variant, there is reason to believe that the British version may not pose such a threat.
After Pfizer established last week that its vaccine was capable of neutralising the concerning N501Y mutation in the UK variant, further analysis of blood taken from trial participants now suggests the jab can overcome a number of genetic changes present within the virus.
The latest study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was conducted on a synthetic virus with 10 mutations that are characteristic of the spike protein seen in B117.
Blood samples drawn from 16 vaccinated participants in prior clinical trials were exposed to the so-called “pseudo-virus”, which was effectively neutralised as a result.
The Oxford vaccine targets the same spike protein, raising hopes that it too will be able to trigger an immune response that is similarly capable of neutralising the UK variant’s mutations.