health

Vaccine pioneer says virus will get weaker all the time


The woman who created the Oxford vaccine has said Covid is unlikely to mutate into a much deadlier variant and will eventually just cause the common cold.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert said ‘there aren’t very many places for the virus to go to have something that will evade immunity but still be a really infectious virus’.

She said viruses tend to ‘become less virulent as they circulate’ through the population, adding: ‘There is no reason to think we will have a more virulent version of Sars-CoV-2’.

Dame Sarah said the virus which causes Covid-19 will eventually become like the coronaviruses which circulate widely and cause the common cold. 

Her comments come as Professor Chris Whitty warned that almost all unvaccinated children will become infected with Covid at some point in the future and around half of youngsters have already caught the virus.

Speaking at a Royal Society of Medicine seminar, Dame Sarah said: ‘We already live with four different human coronaviruses that we don’t really ever think about very much and eventually Sars-CoV-2 will become one of those.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert said Covid is unlikely to mutate into a much deadlier variant and will eventually just cause the common cold

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert said Covid is unlikely to mutate into a much deadlier variant and will eventually just cause the common cold

Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said the Delta variant's transmissibility means all school pupils will come into contact with the virus

Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said the Delta variant’s transmissibility means all school pupils will come into contact with the virus

‘It’s just a question of how long it’s going to take to get there and what measures we’re going to have to take to manage it in the meantime.’

The 59-year-old led the team at Oxford University’s Jenner institute which created the lifesaving Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, the most widely distributed jab in the world.

Dame Sarah also revealed she is struggling to get funding to help prevent future pandemics.

The scientist, who specialises in the development of jabs against emerging viruses, said urgent investment was needed to prevent other infectious diseases spreading around the world.

She said: ‘We’re still trying to raise funds to develop other vaccines that we were working on before the pandemic, against diseases that have caused outbreaks in the past and will cause outbreaks in the future.

‘We are being financially supported for our ongoing work against Covid… but when we try to return to projects we were working on before coronavirus we’re still trying to get funding.’

Meanwhile, she said the very rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca jab have not been seen in the same rates in other parts of the world.

She also suggested that primary work on a tweaked vaccine to combat the Beta variant of the virus only gave a ‘slightly better’ immune response than the original vaccine, when given as a third dose to people who had already had two jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the data is still being collected.   

In June, then health secretary Matt Hancock said the Government was in commercial discussions with the pharmaceutical giant over the variant vaccine.

Dame Sarah was also asked which of her titles she is most proud of, and said: ‘Professor, definitely.’ 

The scientist’s comments came as England’s chief medical officer said almost all unvaccinated children will become infected with Covid at some point and said the others would get it ‘sooner or later’, insisting that vaccines will cut that risk. 

Being grilled by politicians about his decision to recommend all over-12s are given Covid jabs, Professor Whitty insisted the move was made purely due to the benefits children would get. 

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He denied the advice — which overruled guidance from No10’s top vaccine advisory panel which recommended youngsters weren’t jabbed — was political. 

Professor Whitty said: ‘The great majority of children who have not currently had Covid are going to get it at some point.

‘It won’t be necessary in the next two or three months but they will get it sooner or later because this is incredibly infectious. Vaccination will reduce that risk.’ 

It comes after Tory MPs yesterday slammed the Government for ‘undermining’ the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) — the independent body advising the Government on vaccine policy — by pushing through jabs for children.

They argued bringing in the measure now was ‘peverse’ because Britain is ‘through the worst of the pandemic’. 

But speaking at an education select committee today, Professor Whitty said vaccines in 12- to 15-year-olds will be vital in stemming the current surge in cases in the age group after their return to schools.

Lauren McLean, 15, from Newcastle, receives the Pfizer vaccine at the Excelsior Academy today in Newcastle upon Tyne

Lauren McLean, 15, from Newcastle, receives the Pfizer vaccine at the Excelsior Academy today in Newcastle upon Tyne

Felix Dima, 13, from Newcastle, receives the Pfizer vaccine at the Excelsior Academy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Felix Dima, 13, from Newcastle, receives the Pfizer vaccine at the Excelsior Academy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Professor Whitty said: ‘There is definitely substantial transmission happening in this age group. 

What is the risk to children if they catch Covid?

Most children who become infected with the virus have no symptoms, or mild symptoms such as low-grade fever, fatigue, and a cough. 

However children with underlying health conditions may be at an increased risk of a condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome.

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome  can lead to life-threatening problems with the heart and other organs.

Symptoms of the condition can include fever, stomachache, rash, vomiting, cracked lips, a swollen lymph node in the neck and sleepiness. 

This year, researchers found children face an ‘extremely low’ one in 500,000 risk of dying from the coronavirus. 

The studies were led by researchers at University College London, the University of York and the University of Liverpool.

One of the study’s showed the coronavirus contributed to 0.8 per cent of the 3,105 deaths in children from all causes in the first year of the pandemic.

They found the under-18s who died were more likely to be teenagers than younger children, showing that the risk from the virus increases with age. 

Higher proportions of Asian and black children died from the virus but these deaths were ‘still extremely rare’, they said. 

A second study found that 251 young people in England were admitted to intensive care with Covid from March 2020 to February this year, which equates to around a one in 50,000 risk. 

Of these patients, 91 per cent had one or more underlying health conditions. 

A third study, which was led by Dr Rachel Harwood at the University of Liverpool, supported the findings of the other papers.    

‘In fact, the age group we’re talking about is the one in which the highest rate of transmission is currently occurring, as far as we can tell.’

The JCVI decided not to recommend mass vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds on health grounds alone because youngsters face such a vanishingly small risk of becoming seriously ill. 

There were also concerns over a rare side effect called myocarditis — inflammation of the heart. 

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But the expert panel suggested wider issues, such as disruption to education, should be taken into consideration and examined by the UK’s four chief medical officers.

Professor Whitty and his fellow medical officers in the devolved nations ruled that youngsters should get a single dose of Pfizer. 

They signed off on the plans on the basis that it could prevent hundreds of thousands of school absences.

Discussing his recommendation today, he said the advice focused purely on the benefit to youngsters, and had not been made for political reasons or for the benefit of more vulnerable adults.

He added that while the vaccination programme would cause some disruption to schools, it would be outweighed by the likely disruption caused if children caught Covid. 

When asked what proportion of children had already had Covid, he replied: ‘It varies by age and it does also vary by setting, but I think if we go for roughly half I think that is a reasonable stab at this.

‘That’s half over the period of the entire epidemic to date, and we’ve got quite a way to run.

‘We’re running into winter so there’s still quite a lot of damage that could be done in terms of disruption.’

England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who was also being quizzed, added that because the Delta variant is so infectious ‘we are not looking at a theoretical risk’ of children aged 12 to 17 becoming infected.

He said: ‘I think it is really quite inevitable that they will be so at some point.’

Professor Van-Tam warned that these pupils could become infected during their GCSEs and A-levels when it is ‘extremely inconvenient to be laid low’ with a cough, fever, and respiratory symptoms. 

Britain began inoculating healthy secondary school-aged children with a single dose of Pfizer‘s vaccine for the first time on Monday.

It did so despite originally not getting the blessing from No10’s vaccines advisory panel, which said the health benefit to youngsters was ‘marginal’.  

Yesterday in a Commons debate about the move to vaccinate children, Bolton West MP Chris Green said: ‘In many ways we can objectively say we are through the worst of the pandemic and yet the more draconian or authoritarian measures are being introduced at this stage. It’s perverse.’  

MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge Miriam Cates, who led the debate, questioned the logic behind the plans, adding: ‘Children are not disease spreaders, they’re not a buffer for our healthcare system and they’re not an economic inconvenience.’ 

And MP Derek Thomas added said the decision to override the JCVI’s original advice ‘undermined confidence in the very vaccine rollout programme’.

Tories slam No10 over ‘perverse’ move to give over-12s Covid vaccines

Tories today slammed the ‘perverse’ decision to extend the Covid vaccine rollout to children as young as 12.

In the first parliamentary debate about the controversial expansion of the jab drive, Conservative MPs said it did not make sense now that Britain was ‘through the worst of the pandemic’.

They questioned the move to leave the final say on vaccination with children, if they are deemed competent enough, given that experts are torn on the health benefits and ethics.

Britain began inoculating healthy secondary school-aged children with a single dose of Pfizer‘s vaccine for the first time yesterday.

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It did so despite originally not getting the blessing from No10’s vaccines advisory panel, which said the health benefit to youngsters was ‘marginal’. 

The Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) left the decision to Chris Whitty and the chief medical officers in the devolved nations. 

They signed off on the plans on the basis that it could prevent hundreds of thousands of school absences.

Bolton West MP Chris Green said in the Commons: ‘In many ways we can objectively say we are through the worst of the pandemic and yet the more draconian or authoritarian measures are being introduced at this stage. It’s perverse.’  

MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge Miriam Cates, who led the debate, questioned the logic behind the plans, adding: ‘Children are not disease spreaders, they’re not a buffer for our healthcare system and they’re not an economic inconvenience.’ 

And MP Derek Thomas added said the decision to override the JCVI’s original advice ‘undermined confidence in the very vaccine rollout programme’.          

Revealed: The logistics of vaccinating over-12s in schools

How will it work?

The NHS has already been asked to prepare to offer Covid vaccines to 3million 12 to 15-year-olds.

Doses will mostly be administered through the school vaccination programme, which manages HPV and flu inoculations in schools every year.

Official figures showed almost 90 per cent of children offered the HPV vaccine every year take it. 

Children will likely receive their vaccines in suitable areas such as school halls. They will be delivered by nurses, healthcare support workers and administrative staff.

Parents are set to receive a letter revealing the plans for jabbing kids in the coming days, No10’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi revealed today. They will also be asked to consent to their child receiving the vaccine. 

Will it need parental consent?

Under-16s are not automatically presumed to be legally competent to make decisions about their healthcare and, therefore, whether they should get the Covid jab.

But the courts have previously ruled that under-16s are competent to give consent to an intervention if they have ‘sufficient understanding and intelligence to understand fully what is proposed’.

This is known as the ‘Gillick test’, and has been in place since the 1980s.  

The test is normally carried out by a medical professional or nurse, who assesses the child’s maturity, and their understanding of the advantages, disadvantages and potential long-term impacts of vaccination. They then give a view on whether the child is competent to consent to vaccination.

Can children overrule their parents?

Mr Zahawi said today that children as young as 12 could be able to overrule their parents to get the vaccine.

But he admitted this was likely to be a ‘very rare occurrence’ for the youngest children. He also said parents should not be ‘stigmatised’ if they are hesitant about their children being vaccinated.

Mr Zahawi said children would only be able to choose to have the coronavirus vaccine against their parents’ wishes following a meeting with a clinician.  

The deputy head of the JCVI Professor Anthony Harnden said there was ‘sliding scale’ of competency, meaning it would be easier for a 15-year-old to overrule their parents than a 12-year-old who is ‘less likely to be deemed competent’.

Professor Chris Whitty said, in terms of medical consent: ‘In the majority of cases, children and their parents come to the same decision.’ 



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