Government announces deal with vaccine firm to respond to Covid-19 variants

Emma Bowden, PA

The UK Government has announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants of coronavirus.

The partnership with the German firm will allow the UK to “swiftly tweak and roll out” existing vaccines to combat new variants, according to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

Almost all vaccines developed through the agreement will be modifications of an existing jab by CureVac, which is currently undergoing phase three clinical trials.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said it will allow large-scale manufacturing in the UK to ramp up quickly to ensure new jabs can be rolled out, if a new strain shows resistance to existing vaccines.

Varieties of the vaccine will be based on messenger RNA technology, meaning a jab can be reformulated against variants more quickly than more traditional vaccine technologies.

Through the partnership and in addition to doses already secured, the Government has placed an initial order for 50 million doses of new vaccines to be delivered later this year if needed.

While both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs appear to work well against the variants currently dominant in the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “we must be prepared for all eventualities”.

“This will help ensure we can continue to provide everyone with a high level of protection against the virus and save lives,” he said.

It comes after the team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab said that vaccines against new coronavirus variants should be ready by October.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said on Wednesday that work designing a new vaccine is “very, very quick” and so new jabs could be available for use in the autumn.

Studies have shown that variants of coronavirus with the worrying E484K mutation could make vaccines less effective, though they are still expected to offer good protection against illness and severe disease.

The mutation is found in the South African variant of the virus, which has prompted surge-testing in areas of England where community transmission is feared.

The Government will also establish an expert advisory group to identify new variants which the UK could need to vaccinate against.

Mr Kwarteng said: “The UK’s vaccine programme has been a national success story so far, and we are determined to make sure we’re as prepared as we can be in the long term if new variants of Covid-19 emerge.

“This fantastic new partnership means we can work to swiftly tweak and roll out new variations of existing vaccines if we need to, while also building up Britain’s vaccine manufacturing base in the process.”

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