The Astrazeneca vaccine currently being deployed in the UK’s largest ever immunisation programme works against the coronavirus variant first identified in Kent, researchers have found.
Scientists from Oxford University, working in collaboration with the British-Swedish firm, said the jab has a similar efficacy against the new Covid variant compared to the original coronavirus strain it was tested against.
Professor Andrew Pollard, a chief investigator on the vaccine trial, said the new data suggested “the vaccine not only protects against the original pandemic virus, but also protects against the novel B117 variant”.
The Covid strain was first discovered at the start of December, and was blamed for a huge jump in coronavirus cases over the Christmas period.
It is now the dominant strain of coronavirus across the UK, and has spread to other parts of the world including the US.
The Prime Minister announced last month that the B117 variant is around 70 per cent more transmissible, and may be up to 40 per cent more deadly.
He said there was “some evidence” that the Kent variant likely causes around three to four more deaths per 1,000 people than the original strain.
However, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, insisted that there was “good clinical evidence” that natural immunity from other Covid strains would provide protection against the new mutation.
But scientists remain concerned about a new Covid mutation that has “spontaneously” appeared in the coronavirus strain first identified in the UK.
The new E484K mutation has so far been identified in the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants of coronavirus, and could prove resistant to existing vaccines.
The government this afternoon announced it has signed a deal with German biotech firm CureVac for 50m doses of a new vaccine being developed to tackle emerging Covid mutations.
Scientists have warned that those who have been infected with previous Covid variants may not have immunity to the latest strain.
Meanwhile Dr Susan Hopkins, chief epidemiologist at Public Health England, said that existing vaccines may offer less protection against the E484K variant, although they still offer a good level of immunity.
Astrazeneca yesterday said it aims to produce a “next generation” Covid-19 vaccine especially suited to new mutations as soon as the autumn.
Separate trial data released today showed Astrazeneca’s current Covid vaccine is effective in over-65s, despite claims from within the EU that cast doubt over its efficacy in the most vulnerable groups.
The UK started rolling out the vaccine to elder groups in January, after it received approval from Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in December.
But a political tangle on the continent last week saw other European countries, namely Germany, claim there was “insufficient data” to recommend it for those over the age of 65.
A French panel followed suit earlier this week, with President Emmanuel Macron claiming the Astrazeneca jab was “quasi-ineffective” in over-65s.
But Munir Pirmohamed, chair of the Commission on Human Medicines, rubbished the claims, insisting that the jab is effective in protecting against coronavirus across all age groups.
“There was no evidence that those people over 65 were not getting evidence of efficacy,” he said at an MHRA news briefing this afternoon.
“We’ve seen more data coming through from Astrazeneca as more people are completing the trial, which highlights again that efficacy in the elderly is seen, and there’s no evidence of lack of efficacy.”