The UK has rubber-stamped a deal for 50million doses of tweaked coronavirus vaccines, as it steps up efforts to fight off jab-resistant variants.
Newly-emerged strains have sparked concerns across the world, after tests revealed some may be able to dodge immunity triggered by the current crop of vaccines.
But the deal signed between the Department of Business and German biotech firm CureVac today seeks to bolster the UK’s arsenal against these emerging threats, and keep the nation one step ahead of the virus.
Officials are yet to confirm which strains they are targeting, but it is thought likely to include the South African variant which tests show can resist jab-triggered immunity.
The vaccines will be based on RNA, the same technology used by Pfizer/BioNTech for their shots which were more than 90 per cent effective in trials.
Matt Hancock heralded the agreement as ensuring the UK can continue to ‘provide everyone with a high level of protection against the virus and save lives’.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said new jabs will be needed to ‘offer the best protection possible’ as the virus continues to mutate.
‘Being able to create these new vaccines at speed will allow our scientists to keep ahead of the virus as they do every year with the influenza vaccine,’ he said.
CureVac has been working on an mRNA vaccine – using a protein from the virus – which is currently in stage three trials.
The European Union signed a deal for up to 405million doses of their jab in November, following five months of talks. But the UK does not have any previous purchase commitments with the company.
Officials haven’t said which variants they are targeting, but it is thought likely to include the South African variant which has sparked door-to-door testing in parts of the UK. Pictured, a policeman delivers a coronavirus testing kit in Maidstone, Kent
The three Covid variants causing international alarm emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil
GOVERNMENT SAYS IT WILL VACCINATE ALL OVER-50S BY MAY 6
The government today revealed it expects to have vaccinated all over-50s before May 6 as Boris Johnson plots a route to freedom.
The Cabinet Office disclosed the schedule as it confirmed that elections in England will take place on that date – citing the fact that the top nine groups will have received jabs as a reason it can ‘go ahead with these polls with confidence’.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi repeatedly refused to give a timetable for completing the first phase of the rollout – totalling 32million people – in interviews yesterday.
But the government said today: ‘The UK’s vaccination programme is planned to have reached all nine priority cohorts by May, meaning that the Government can commit to go ahead with these polls with confidence – and maintain the choice for voters between voting in person or remotely.’
However, the news is likely to fuel pressure from Tories to speed up easing of lockdown. The head of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group has called for restrictions to be lifted altogether once all over-50s have been offered doses.
As optimism rises about the vaccination programme, the PM is preparing to bring back outdoor mixing and sport once children are back in school from March 8, with hopes of a ‘quick return to normal’ in April and May.
Officials at the Department of Business said an expert advisory group will be established to identify variants for CureVac to target.
They added that the agreement means any tweaked vaccines can quickly be manufactured at scale in the UK and rushed to vaccination centres, meaning they can get protection to Britons faster.
The Health Secretary said: ‘The vaccines we are deploying now are safe and effective, with the latest evidence suggesting they provide protection against new strains of Covid-19.
‘But we must be prepared for all eventualities and bolster onshore UK manufacturing capacity to develop vaccines to combat new variants of the disease, taking advantage of our world-leading genomics expertise.
‘This will help ensure we can continue to provide everyone with a high level of protection against the virus and save lives.’
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi praised the deal as ‘exactly the kind of work that will stand us in good stead as we continue our monumental national effort to end this pandemic and return to normality’.
‘Of course we urge people to continue to take up the chance to have a vaccine when they are invited to – all of which are safe and have been proven to be effective against the virus.’
The price tag of the new partnership has not been revealed.
There are three main variants of concern at present, with two – the Kent and South African variants – already identified in the UK.
The Kent strain, which is more infectious, has become the dominant one in the country, while 100 cases of the South African one have been identified.
Whole postcodes are currently locked down as officials conduct door-to-door swabbing in an effort to track down any cases of the South African variant to snuff it out before it triggers an outbreak.
Ministers say they believe the Kent variant is susceptible to the current vaccines, but they are concerned the South African one may be able to dodge it in some cases.
There is also a Brazilian variant, which has sparked further concern among ministers after a large outbreak in Manaus state, where it was thought levels of protection against the old strain were already high.
The partnership was signed with German biotech company CureVac. Above is a sign to a Covid-19 testing centre in Walsall, Staffordshire
It comes as research finds the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is just as effective at fighting the UK variant as it is the original virus.
Oxford University researchers who developed the vaccine say it has a similar efficacy against the variant first detected in Kent and the South East of the UK, compared to the original strain of Covid-19 that it was tested against.
Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity, and chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial, said: ‘Data from our trials of the ChAdOx1 vaccine in the United Kingdom indicate that the vaccine not only protects against the original pandemic virus, but also protects against the novel variant, B117, which caused the surge in disease from the end of 2020 across the UK.’