The UK needs to move away from ‘obsessing’ over each new mutant Covid variant as they appear, a vaccine chief has said.
Professor Andrew Pollard, the head of Oxford University’s vaccine group, says scientists are doing ‘excellent sequencing’ to pick up on new strains and working hard to prepare booster jabs.
The booster being worked on by Oxford University may help protect people against several different Covid variants, meaning scientists won’t have to race to react to every new strain.
It comes as a search for the sixth case of the Brazilian P1 variant in England is narrowed down to 379 households in the south east.
Speaking to Radio 4, Professor Pollard said: ‘It is difficult because we’re very focused on what we’re seeing today and of course the nature of this virus is that it will continue to throw out new mutations in time.
‘And so, to some extent, we’ve got to start moving away from an obsession with each variant as it appears [and] try to rely on the excellent sequencing that is being run nationally to pick up variants so that new designs of vaccines can be made as and when they are needed.
‘Certainly at the moment there are some similarities between the P.1 Brazil variant and the B.1351 South African variant.
‘So the work at the moment is partly to understand whether a vaccine for one of them might actually protect against both.
‘There’s a lot more that we don’t know yet about this, but all the developers are working on new vaccines to make sure we are ready if we need to be.’
It comes as Professor Sharon Peacock, who runs the Covid Genomics Consortium tracking new variants of the virus, says it’s possible coronavirus could reach ‘optimal fitness’ and stop producing stronger mutations.
In the same interview, Professor Polland praised ‘stunning’ results that show one dose of the Oxford or Pfizer vaccine can reduce the risk of hospitalisation by up to 80% among the over 70s.
There is hope that immunisation could stop people passing on the virus ‘almost completely’, which will make it easier to end lockdown quickly and permanently, he said.
The expert believes countries will be currently reconsidering the decision to not use the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, as 5,000 people die every day with Covid across Europe.
He said: ‘First of all, because these data come from the hardest group to protect – those who are the frailest, the oldest adults in our population – and we’re seeing an 80% reduction in hospitalisation in that group, which is stunning.
‘Second… both of the vaccines performed exactly the same, there was no daylight between them.
‘We’ve had all this difficulty with communication, particularly around Europe, with uncertainty about the evidence, whereas in the UK we’ve been rolling out both vaccines in the confidence that they would both give high levels of protection.
‘And that’s absolutely what we’ve seen now in this real-world evidence – that whether you’ve had a Pfizer vaccine or the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, you have very high levels of protection.’
He added: ‘It just shows how critical it is to improve public confidence across the continent about the vaccines, and that’s why the data that appears today is so important – to show that both of the vaccines which are widely available in Europe can have this big impact.’
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that more than half of the over-80s in England living outside care homes now have antibodies against coronavirus. The next closest group is those aged 16 to 24, who have a rate of 30.1%.
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