he Oxford vaccine will prevent people becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid and there is “no reason for alarm” about a South African variant, the British doctor who led its clinical trials said today.
Professor Andrew Pollard downplayed concerns after new data from South Africa found the Oxford jab was only 10 per cent effective in preventing mild to moderate disease in young adults against the B.1.351 variant.
About 150 cases of the latest South African variant have been detected in the UK but Professor Pollard said the vaccine and the Pfizer jab both worked well against the main “Kent” strain of Covid that is responsible for the majority of new cases in the UK.
He urged Britons to continue to come forward to be vaccinated and told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think that there is any reason for alarm.” He said the South African study was “exactly what we would have expected” because it was already known that the virus was mutating, to allow it to continue to transmit in a population with levels of immunity from past infections.
Professor Pollard said: “The really important point, though, is that all vaccines, everywhere in the world where they have been tested, are still preventing severe disease and death. That is perhaps the clue to the future here — that we are going to see new variants arise, and they will spread in the population, like most of the viruses that cause colds every winter.
“But as long as we have enough immunity to prevent severe disease, hospitalisations and death, then we are going to be fine in the future in the pandemic.”
He said the South African study had only looked at young adults. “The really important question is about severe disease and we didn’t study that in South Africa,” he said.
He said it was more accurate to say that the roll-out of the Oxford jab in South Africa had been paused rather than halted, and the “jury is out” on the question of whether new vaccines would be needed to halt further variants that were likely to emerge.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam last night said that there was no evidence the South African variant enjoyed a “transmissibility advantage” so was unlikely to become the dominant strain in the UK in the coming months.
He told the Downing Street briefing he believed it was “likely” the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab — like the other vaccines — would give “substantial” protection against serious illness from the variant.
He said that it was possible people would need annual or biennial booster jabs as the vaccines were updated to deal with new variants, and that there were “a lot of steps behind the scenes” to ensure that could happen.
New jabs for Covid-19 will speed up advanced vaccines designed to fight cancer as well as a range of infections, a leading expert said today.
Professor Lawrence Young said scientists had managed to “leapfrog” technology and this opened up the path to multi-purpose vaccines, where one shot could target several deadly diseases at the same time.