Health

Covid vaccine booster may be needed as variants emerge, says minister


The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, has said people may need a Covid booster jab in autumn as more variants of the virus emerge, although the government is still confident current vaccines will prevent severe symptoms.

His comments came following the release of a study showing the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab has reduced efficacy against the South African variant.

“I was speaking to [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 said on the BBC’s 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 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.”

“Through their own trials, AstraZeneca believes [the vaccine] does effectively deal with serious illness and hospitalisation,” Zahawi said.

Zahawi told Sky News’ 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.

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“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.

Researchers working on a new vaccine designed to combat the South African variant of coronavirus are hopeful it will be ready to administer by the autumn, the Oxford vaccine’s lead researcher, Prof Sarah Gilbert, has said.

The expert told the Andrew Marr Show 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.

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“This year we expect to show that the new version of the vaccine will generate antibodies that recognise the new variant. Then it will be very much like working on flu vaccines. It looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”

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.

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“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.



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