Vaccines can be adapted with such speed that scientists should be able to “get ahead” of new strains of coronavirus, the chief investigator behind a new highly effective jab from Novavax has said.
Professor Paul Heath, who led the trial for the vaccine which has been shown to be 89% effective, said that while some variants were harder to tackle, jabs could be adapted quickly.
Experts have been deeply worried about new mutant strains of coronavirus, including those found in South Africa and Brazil, due to the fact existing vaccines may not be effective against them.
Data shows the new Novavax vaccine is 89% effective at preventing Covid-19 in a clinical trial run in the UK, which involved more than 15,000 people aged between 18-84, of which 27% were older than 65.
More than 50% of cases related to the UK strain of the virus first identified in Kent, with the vaccine offering 86% protection against this strain.
Against the original strain that has circulated since the start of the pandemic, the vaccine was 96% effective.
In a separate South African arm of the trial, where most cases of Covid-19 were the worrying South African strain, the jab was 60% effective in people without HIV.
The UK has secured 60 million doses of the Novavax jab – to be produced on Teesside – with the hope that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) could approve it within weeks.
Prof Heath told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was reason for optimism that vaccines could keep pace with any new variants that are emerging.
He said the results from his trial were “yet another great step forward for the UK”, adding: “I think the technology we have both with this vaccine, the Novavax technology, and the other vaccines, it is such that they can adapt quickly so we can expect to see, if required, new vaccines or bivalent vaccines, where two different strains are joined together in the one vaccine.
“And that now can be done at pace so that we can keep up with these variants should they prove to be difficult to prevent with the vaccine that we have at the moment.
“We’ve seen for the UK that the UK variant can be successfully prevented with this vaccine, which is great.
“Yes, the South African variant is more difficult… But all the technologies we are now seeing mean that we can adapt very quickly to such new variants and produce new vaccines at pace so that we can keep up – and in fact get ahead of – the virus.”
In the clinical trial in South Africa, around one third of people tested positive for previous infection with coronavirus.
Novavax said this data “suggest that prior infection with Covid-19 may not completely protect against subsequent infection by the South Africa escape variant” but said its jab provided significant protection.
Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, said that although the trial suggested lower efficacy against the South African variant, 60% protection “is still a worthwhile level of immunity”.
He said the vaccine may also offer additional protection against more severe disease.
Former chairwoman of the Vaccine Taskforce, Kate Bingham, said the 89% protection offered by Novavax against the original and UK strains was “phenomenal” but said she hoped the future of vaccines lay in pills, patches and nasal sprays.
Responding to a question about the possibility that regular vaccine rollouts or top-ups could be required, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We need to improve the vaccine formats because frankly two injections delivered by healthcare professionals is not a good way of delivering vaccines.
“We need to get vaccine formats which are much more scalable and distributable, so whether they are pills or patches or nose sprays, we need to find better ways of developing and delivering vaccines, and we’ll do that in collaboration just as we’ve been doing that over the last few months.”
Ms Bingham also backed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after draft recommendation from Germany’s vaccination advisory committee on Thursday said there was insufficient data to recommend it for those aged 65 and over.
“The Germans are making a point that they would like more data,” she said. “Of course everybody would like more data, but the fact is we’ve got great data.
“The MHRA have approved it, the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) have recommended it.
“Anybody who I know who is offered an Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, I will recommend they take it because it is safe and effective.”
The move by Germany comes amid a deepening row between the European Union and AstraZeneca over vaccine supply shortages in the bloc.
Brussels has demanded AstraZeneca doses be sent from British plants to make up for a shortfall in supplies, but the Government has said it will not allow vaccines intended for the UK to go to the EU.
However, German MEP Dr Peter Liese warned the UK it would be acting like former US president Donald Trump if it pursued a “UK first” contract for the vaccines.
Elsewhere, Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford is set to confirm that the lockdown will remain in force in Wales for another three weeks.
He said a “combination of factors” would be considered before children could begin returning to schools in Wales, including case rates and the numbers in hospital.
He told BBC Breakfast: “If it’s safe to do so, we all want our children, more of them, back in the classroom.
“That’s what they need, that’s what they deserve, and our Cabinet is determined that that will be the top priority for us here in Wales.”
Mr Drakeford also said teachers would only be prioritised for a vaccine if the JCVI changed its advice.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We follow the advice of the JCVI. If the committee tell us to prioritise teachers, that is what we will do.
“While its advice remains that the top nine priority groups should be the focus of our attention, that is what we will do.
“If the advice were to change, then we would follow the changed advice.”