Ministers and scientists expressed concern last week that the new Botswana Covid variant not only had the potential to be more infectious than previous variants, but that existing vaccines might be less effective at fighting it off.
Last Friday, drug firm Pfizer said it was investigating the mutation – labelled Omicron by the World Health Organisation – to assess whether an ‘adjustment’ was needed to its jab.
The American firm said it could develop new doses in six weeks and begin shipping in just over three months.
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Yet experts told The Mail on Sunday that there is one jab ready to go that might already be highly effective against this version of the virus: the one developed by French firm Valneva and ordered by the UK Government – but then cancelled.
It could have an advantage over current jabs because the way it’s been made differs.
It contains what is known as a fully inactivated virus – a whole Covid virus that has been neutralised.
Though it can’t cause illness, the immune system reacts by recognising the threat and creating antibodies and other fighter cells, enabling the body to fight off the real virus if it becomes infected.
There is one jab ready to go that might already be highly effective against this version of the virus: the one developed by French firm Valneva and ordered by the UK Government – but then cancelled
The 'monster' strain, named Omicron and designated a 'variant of concern' by the World Health Organisation on Friday, has reached the UK and Belgium after being discovered in South Africa
Other shots such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca use genetic fragments from one part of the Covid virus, called the spike protein – the section that allows it to bind with healthy cells.
It is this part that’s prone to mutations: the 32 mutations seen in the Botswana variant are all found on the spike protein, which increases the chances that the antibodies developed in response to the above vaccines may not ‘recognise’ it, allowing the virus to slip past.
Since the Valneva jab has more parts of the virus for the immune system to learn from, experts believe it could be more ‘variant-proof’ than the others.
Professor Adam Finn, paediatrician and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the Government’s advisory group, says there is a ‘strong theoretical argument’ that the Valneva jab could provide protection against the Botswana variant.
‘This is potentially a more resilient vaccine,’ he said.
‘Obviously we’d need to look at how it reacts to this particular variant but I think there’s a strong argument for doing that right now.’
Trial results published last month found two doses of Valneva were 95 per cent effective at preventing infection. The trial of 4,000 participants also reported no cases of severe illness.
In December 2020, the UK bought 100 million doses of Valneva on the advice of former vaccine tsar Dame Kate Bingham, who identified it having a ‘broader immune response’ against variants.
Speaking in February, she said: ‘That vaccine [Valneva] I imagine could get used for pre-winter booster injections that can address variants.’
However, the UK cancelled its order with Valneva in September, with the Government stating the firm had breached the terms of its supply agreement. Valneva denies this.
Earlier this week, before the discovery of the new variant, Bingham criticised the cancellation of the contract as ‘inexplicable’.
Prof Finn, who was chief investigator for the Valneva trials, said the Government should now reconsider Valneva.
‘We have been very focused on several vaccines in this country and it’s never a good idea to bank on one option.
'You need more than one option with an unpredictable, dangerous variant like this.’
Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, says if studies show significant ‘immune-escape’, then it’s likely the UK would have to run another booster campaign.
According to Professor Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College London, it will take several months before scientists know the impact of the new variant on the vaccines.
She added: ‘We believe the current vaccines will still provide protection, but it is possible that for some people this protection might be less.
‘The question is how low will this protection fall to?’