Coronavirus vaccines could be tweaked to spark immunity against new variants in just three weeks, a top scientist has said.
Professor Robin Shattock, an Imperial College London scientist who is working on booster shots, said experts could rapidly adapt the current crop of jabs, allowing them to be rolled out within a couple of months.
He added antibodies triggered by jabs based on the old virus would still be effective at preventing serious illness, should someone catch a new variant.
Professor Shattock was leading trials of a Covid-19 vaccine but abandoned them last month because other jabs were already approved and being rolled out.
Scientists fear new variants — which can contain dozens of potentially dangerous mutations — may be able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity, and possibly cause re-infection or serious illness.
No10’s top experts are most concerned about the South African variant — which has sparked a door-to-door testing blitz across England — and a Brazilian strain which have sparked international alarm.
And today fears were raised over the Kent variant that is widespread across the UK after it emerged it may be evolving to include a key mutation that may make it better able to resist immunity.
Professor Robin Shattock, who is working on booster shots to fight the new variants, said tweaked jabs could be in the arms of patients within three months
Covid-19 variants across the world have sparked concern that the virus may be able to dodge jab-triggered immunity
Professor Shattock said scientists are already working worldwide to make booster shots to protect against new variants.
‘(It’s) quite a fast process – we can go from seeing these changes to making a new vaccine in the laboratory in a period of about three weeks,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.
FAMILIES TOLD TO STAY HOME IN HUNT FOR SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT
Families living in areas undergoing mass testing to try to weed out cases of the South African Covid variant have been told to ‘think twice’ about going out food shopping and to stay at home if they possibly can.
And the frantic door-to-door testing blitz may not stop the variant spreading because the 11 cases announced yesterday are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, according to leading scientists. None of the infected patients had travelled to South Africa, suggesting the strain could already spreading in the community.
The Government announced yesterday that it would aim to swab 80,000 people as quickly as possible in eight areas of England where cases of the variant have been discovered, to stop it from spreading further. Experts fear the strain may be able to evade immunity given by vaccines or increase the risk of people getting Covid for a second time.
People will not be told whether they are carrying the South African variant because this cannot be seen in a routine test, but the plan intends to find positive cases among people without symptoms in a bid to isolate them before they can infect others.
And officials have urged people living in those areas – in specific parts of London, Surrey, Midlands, Kent, Hertfordshire, Merseyside and Lancashire – to be extremely strict about lockdown rules. Tory MP and universities minister Michelle Donelan said: ‘Think again before you go about activities, even those within the rules such as essential shopping. Do you really need to go for that shopping or have you got enough in?’
But experts are sceptical about the testing scheme and say there are far more than 11 people infected with the strain already and that testing will slow it down, at best.
‘We can we can make these vaccines in the lab in a three-week process but then to actually get them manufactured, that would take two to three months to get to the manufacturing stage and into the clinic – that’s still quite fast.
‘And we need to remember that more changes may occur but these vaccines won’t go from working well to not working at all.
‘So a three-month period to provide an update and develop a boosting strategy is quite effective.’
He said Britons may need to have annual booster Covid jabs to protect against new variants of the disease as they appear.
Scientists at Imperial and Oxford University are already working on updated jabs to fight off the new variants.
Imperial College London declared it was shelving large scale trials of its Covid-19 vaccine last week to allow scientists to focus on booster shots.
They said although early results of their own jab were ‘promising’, the fact Oxford, Pfizer and Moderna beat them to the punch meant it was no longer worth pursuing.
Imperial said it will use brand new saRNA technology to help make current vaccines better at targeting antibody-resistant strains, including the ones that first emerged in Brazil and South Africa that are causing international alarm.
SaRNA – or ‘self-amplifying RNA’ – are tiny pieces of genetic material that deliver instructions to human cells, in this case training them how to fight Covid-19.
The British Government has pumped millions into developing the technology, and had secured early access to doses if trials had proven successful.
The candidate vaccine was tested on over 400 volunteers in phase I and II clinical trials, but results from these studies are yet to be published.
Professor Shattock said: ‘Although our first generation Covid-19 vaccine candidate is showing promise in early clinical development, the broader situation has changed with the rapid roll out of approved vaccines.
‘It is not the right time to start a new efficacy trial for a further vaccine in the UK, with the emphasis rightly placed on mass vaccination in response to the rapid spread of the new variant.
We want our technology to have the greatest impact. That means developing self-amplifying RNA technology to adapt to new variants, to boost other vaccines and to be deployed against future pandemic threats.’
It comes after fears were sparked after evidence emerged the Kent variant of the virus – which studies showed was susceptible to antibodies – had mutated again in what scientists had dubbed as a ‘worrying development’.
One of the key mutations on the South African and Brazilian variants appear to make the virus more able to resist immunity that has been developed by past infection or from the current vaccines.
And this mutation has now been found at least 11 times in different cases of people infected with the Kent variant, Public Health England revealed, raising fears it could become a permanent feature of the British strain.
A Public Health England report yesterday revealed that the E484K coronavirus mutation, a key difference found in the South African variant, had been found in 11 cases of the Kent strain of the virus (B1.1.7). It said there had been ‘more than one acquisition event’, meaning the virus had mutated separately in multiple different people at random
Mutations on the spike protein can allow the virus to dodge jab-triggered immunity
Both the Kent and South African variants already share one mutation, named N501Y, which makes the virus spread faster. And if this mutation, named E484K, sticks around as well the variants could become extremely similar.
E484K has been concerning scientists because it changes the shape of the virus’s outer spike protein in a way that makes it difficult for the body to recognise it if it is only used to looking for older versions of the virus without the mutation.
This could raise the risk of reinfection or reduce how well vaccines work — but top Government advisers insist jabs should still be effective.
SAGE adviser Professor Calum Semple suggested today that the risk of the Kent variant – and other versions of the virus – continuing to evolve was ‘inevitable’ and ‘will occur in time’, and this mutation would likely be part of that.
Speaking about the threat, Professor Ravi Gupta, an infectious diseases expert at Cambridge University, said: ‘The number of sequences is low at present, though enhanced surveillance is being undertaken by PHE. There may be more cases out there given how high transmission has been. We need to continue vaccinating and drive down transmission.’