Ministers have sought to reassure the public over the effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine as experts warned it was “very possible” the South African variant is already quite widespread in the UK.
A study of around 2,000 people has shown the jab only offers minimal protection against mild disease of the South Africa variant and, due to the young age of participants, could not conclude whether the jab worked against severe disease.
Health minister Edward Argar said that Oxford researchers remained confident their vaccine could prevent severe disease for those affected by the variant and that booster jabs to tackle new strains are already in the pipeline.
Some 147 cases of the South African variant have so far been identified in the UK, with experts warning these are likely to be the “tip of the iceberg” due to the fact they are the result of random checks on 5% to 10% of all positive tests.
Dr Mike Tildesley, who advises the government as a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said it was “very possible” the South African variant is already quite widely spread in the UK.
The Warwick University researcher told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The fact we’re starting to see cases in the hundreds, albeit in the low hundreds, means that unless we’ve really got on top of this quickly, I would expect we could see quite a few more cases coming over the next few weeks and possibly quite a little bit more widespread, so it’s a real concern.”
He said “surge testing” currently taking place must be effective to stop the variant spreading widely, but when asked if it may already be quite widely spread, he replied: “It’s very possible.”
Dr Tildesley said lockdown restrictions may be needed for longer if the variant does turn out to be prevalent in the UK.
He added: “If that is the case and actually people can still get infected and still pass on the infection with the South African variant, and of course if it does become widespread across the country, then that has significant implications because it means that even with high levels of vaccination there will be a lot of people that could potentially get infected and could potentially pass it on and it may mean that more restrictions might be needed for longer if we can’t get on top of this.”
However, Argar said Professor Sarah Gilbert, from Oxford, who designed the Covid vaccine, had said “there wasn’t anything she could point to that caused her to be concerned that it would not be effective against severe forms of the illness, hospitalisation and death from the virus”.
He told BBC Breakfast that dealing with severe disease and people needing to go to hospital was “the key thing we are seeking to tackle here at this point”.
Argar said booster jabs were already being developed to tackle variants, telling Sky News: “What we would all expect is every year we have our flu jabs, it would not be unreasonable to suggest something similar here.”
The minister said the virus “will always try to outwit us”, adding: “We’ve just got to make sure we get ahead of the game and we outwit it.”
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi also said scientists were working on updated vaccines to offer further protection against new variants.
“While it is right and necessary to prepare for the deployment of an updated vaccine, we can take confidence from the current rollout and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease,” he said.
“We need to be aware that even where a vaccine has reduced efficacy in preventing infection, there may still be good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death.”
The South African variant accounts for around 90% of new coronavirus cases in South Africa, which has put its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on hold.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19, said the Oxford study could not show that the vaccine was effective against all levels of seriousness of the South African variant.
He told the Today programme: “What the study results really tell us is that, in a relatively young age group demographic – with very low prevalence of morbidities such as hypertension and diabetes etc – the vaccine does not protect against mild to moderate infection.”
He told Times Radio he does not know if the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be effective in “preventing severe disease”.
He said: “Our problem is we don’t know if the AstraZeneca vaccine will be effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalisation in the population. That’s why we felt we should hold until that information becomes available.
“We’re taking a two-step approach, the first is to vaccinate probably around 100,000 individuals and assess what the hospitalisation rates are.
“Once we’re confident the hospitalisation rates are low with the AstraZeneca vaccine, then we proceed to roll out the remaining million doses we have.”
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told Times Radio the news from Oxford was a step back but added: “I think we can still win; it’s just got so much tougher again.”
He said: “I think the number of variants that can come out of this spike antigen is finite, and we’re not going to be playing this catch-up game forever.
“There is an end in sight and there is tweaking to be done, but I think we’ll get there.
“The sort of biggest worry is that it’s not just about South Africa, is it, it’s about our homegrown versions, and the modification to the Kent variant, and the idea that we’ve got to be so on our guard and track and tracing it so carefully that we don’t expand our homegrown version.”