COVID vaccines could be “tweaked” to deal with new variants of the virus, the lead professor behind the Oxford jab has revealed.
Professor Andrew Pollard said it was “entirely possible” to adapt the jab to protect people from other strains.
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But he added that there is no evidence so far to suggest that the vaccines won’t work against a new mutation.
It comes as a variant in the South East has been blamed for a rise in cases, with scientists warning it’s more contagious and can spread more rapidly.
Prof Pollard hailed the development and approval of the vaccine today as “an absolute triumph of academic collaboration”.
He told BBC’s Radio Radio 4 Today programme: “This really is a great moment in what’s been a difficult year, and definitely a moment here at Oxford, at the university, of pride in our team for this astonishing achievement in science and clinical research during the course of the year.”
He added: “This year with the pandemic has been like being in a blizzard. We’ve been really struggling uphill through snow drifts and with this icy wind in our faces.
“And I think this morning we do have some respite with this good news and the warmth that that brings, and perhaps some hope for the future.”
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s approval is a “game-changer” and has come at the right time, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, told BBC Breakfast: “It is a game-changer. It’s exactly what we need right now.
“We’re facing an extraordinarily difficult situation with a step change in the transmissibility of the virus, which means we need a step change in our response.
“I think essentially what this has turned this into is a race between us and the virus, and we need to slow the virus down as much as we can whilst we get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
He said a vaccine not needing to be stored at the very cold temperatures required for the Pfizer jab would make “an enormous difference”.
Prof Hayward said: “It means that all of the centres that would normally get involved in vaccination, all the GP practices, as well as more simple community centres, for example, can get involved in the vaccine.
“It means we can take the vaccine to where it’s needed, rather than bringing people in to the limited places where we can deliver it.
“So it should make for a step change and it should also allow us to reach out to the most affected communities.”
DAY TO CELEBRATE
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford and lead researcher of the successful vaccine trial, said: “This is a day for the team developing the vaccine to celebrate, after a year of extremely hard work under difficult circumstances.
“Now that the first authorisation of use of the vaccine outside of clinical trials has been granted we still have more to do, and will continue to provide more data to multiple regulatory authorities, until we are able to see the vaccine being used to save lives around the world.”
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s chief scientist Gino Martini said the NHS has a “ready-made workforce” to help with the rollout in the form of community pharmacists.
He said: “Pharmacists are skilled in vaccination, having provided flu jabs and travel vaccines for years.
“This means the NHS has a ready-made workforce waiting to play its part to scale up the Covid vaccination programme and speed up delivery of the vaccine to at-risk groups.”
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that despite the fact the latest vaccine will be easier to rollout than the Pfizer jab, injecting large numbers of people in a short space of time will be a “huge challenge” for doctors.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, said: “Doctors taking part in the campaign, whether that’s in hospitals, GP-led sites or mass vaccination centres, want to get on with the rollout, and this needs support and investment while GPs will need to have the flexibility to deprioritise other services to focus on this vital work.”
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said frontline staff must be vaccinated “as a priority”.
He said: “The pandemic is bringing the NHS to its knees and this is the way out.
“Frontline NHS and care staff must be vaccinated in the next couple of weeks as a priority as the current pressures on the NHS will be impossible to withstand without a fit and protected workforce.”
DEDICATION & HARD WORK
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty paid tribute to the “willingness and selflessness” of volunteers who participated in vaccine trials.
Welcoming the “very good news” of the jab’s approval, he said: “There has been a considerable collective effort that has brought us to this point.
“The dedication and hard work of scientists, regulators and those who funded the research, such as the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) and United Kingdom Vaccine Network (UKVN), and the willingness and selflessness of so many volunteers who took part in the vaccine trials, were essential in delivering this safe and effective vaccine.
“They deserve our recognition and thanks.”
How does the Oxford vaccine work?
The vaccine – called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 – uses a harmless, weakened version of a common virus which causes a cold in chimpanzees.
Researchers have already used this technology to produce vaccines against a number of pathogens including flu, Zika and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers).
The virus is genetically modified so that it is impossible for it to grow in humans.
Scientists have transferred the genetic instructions for coronavirus’s specific “spike protein” – which it needs to invade cells – to the vaccine.
When the vaccine enters cells inside the body, it uses this genetic code to produce the surface spike protein of the coronavirus.
This induces an immune response, priming the immune system to attack coronavirus if it infects the body.
It differs from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines because they use messenger RNA technology (mRNA).
Conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of the virus, but mRNAs use only the virus’s genetic code.
An mRNA vaccine is injected into the body where it enters cells and tells them to create antigens.
These antigens are recognised by the immune system and prepare it to fight coronavirus.
No actual virus is needed to create an mRNA vaccine. This means the rate at which the vaccine can be produced is accelerated
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the vaccine approval as a “great British success story”.
He told Times Radio: “This is a great British success story and the reason it matters so much is that this vaccine is easy to administer, it only needs to be stored at a normal fridge temperature so we can get it right out into GPs’ surgeries, into care homes, and critically we’ve got 100 million doses coming so everybody can get vaccinated.
“Because of the way that it’s been approved, because the second dose is only needed after 12 weeks, it means that we can accelerate the rollout of this.”
Professor Daniel Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, praised the team behind the vaccine.
He said: “This is the fruition of decades of ground-breaking vaccinology and hard graft by the team at the Jenner in Oxford.
“It couldn’t be more timely and desperately needed. At a time when we see the pandemic accelerating beyond our control, a rapid, efficient vaccination programme with good population coverage is our only way out.”
Prof Altmann said the imminent vaccine rollout means “it starts to look realistic that this could be achievable by the spring or early summer”.