The coronavirus pandemic will be over if COVID-19 jabs are able to keep people out of hospital, a leading vaccine expert has said.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the pandemic would end if vaccines keep hospital admissions low.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday: “If the current generation of vaccines are able to stop people going into hospital, whilst there are still mild infections, people are getting the common cold with the virus, then the pandemic is over.”
He added: “Because we can live with the virus – in fact, we are going to have to live with the virus in one way or another, but it doesn’t matter if most people are kept out of hospital, because then the NHS can continue to function and life will be back to normal.
“We just need a little bit more time to have certainty around this.”
According to the latest government figures, 703 coronavirus patients were admitted to hospital in the seven days between 12 and 18 May, a fall of 7.1% from the previous seven-day period.
Daily admissions topped 4,500 in the middle of January, but the number of patients admitted to hospital on 18 May was 122.
Prof Pollard, the leader of the clinical trials for the AstraZeneca jab, said it was not certain if new vaccines would be needed.
Watch: Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs effective against Indian variant
However, he urged people to have their second jab and warned that the Indian COVID-19 variant was able to spread “slightly better” whether people were vaccinated or not.
“Of course this is the variant that’s around at the moment but future variants are going to get even better at doing that,” he said.
“That’s the evolution of this virus, that it’s going to find ways around immune responses to be able to spread a bit better, and so that gives a really important public-health message, which is that if you’re unvaccinated, then the virus will eventually find those individuals in the population who are unvaccinated, and of course if you’re over 50 and unvaccinated, you’re at much greater risk of severe disease.”
A study published at the weekend by Public Health England (PHE) showed that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is 88% effective against the Indian variant after two doses, and that the AstraZeneca jab was 60% effective.
Both vaccines were 33% effective against symptomatic disease from the Indian variant three weeks after the first dose, compared with about 50% against the Kent strain.
Health secretary Matt Hancock described the outcome of the study as “groundbreaking”, while PHE said it expects to see even higher levels of effectiveness against hospital admission and death.
It said there have been at least 2,889 cases of the Indian variant recorded in England from the beginning of February.
Prof Pollard said: “The thing that makes this a pandemic is people going into hospital. And so what we really need to know, and we don’t have the data yet for certain, is how well both vaccines are performing in preventing people from going into hospital.
“And what we’ve seen so far in the pandemic is that protection from vaccines against hospitalisation and death is much, much higher than the protection against mild infection, which is what these tests are detecting."
The latest government figures showed that more than 60 million first and second vaccine doses have now been administered in the UK.
It includes 37.9 million people who have received their first dose, or 72% of the UK adult population, and 22.6 million who have had both (43%).
Hancock said: “Shortly after vaccinating over 70% of adults in the UK with a first dose, we have hit yet another incredible milestone with over 60 million doses delivered in total.
“Our trailblazing vaccination programme, the biggest and most successful in NHS history, is another great British success story and a testament to what can be achieved when all four corners of the country comes together to defeat this virus.”
Watch: UK passes 60 million jabs milestone