The government has signed a deal with German biotech firm CureVac for 50m doses of a new vaccine being developed to tackle emerging Covid mutations.
The deal will see CureVac create “new varieties of vaccines based on messenger RNA technology to be developed quickly against new strains of Covid-19 if they are needed”, the Department of Health and Social (DHSC) care said in a statement.
The agreement will also allow large-scale manufacturing of vaccines in the UK to avoid potential export delays, after a high-stakes tussle with the EU last week.
It takes the total number of vaccines ordered by the government to 457m from eight different pharmaceutical companies. So far only the Pfizer/Biontech and Astrazeneca/Oxford University vaccines are being administered to the public.
DHSC also announced today that the government is establishing an expert advisory group to identify emerging variants that may require updated or fresh vaccines.
It comes after scientists warned earlier this week that a new E484K mutation identified in the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants of coronavirus could prove resistant to existing vaccines.
The mutation is understood to have occurred spontaneously in the Kent variant — which is now the dominant strain of coronavirus across the UK — and has so far been found in 11 samples of around 200,000 that have been sequenced.
Scientists have warned that those who have been infected with previous Covid variants may not have immunity to the latest strain.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief epidemiologist at Public Health England, said that existing vaccines may offer less protection against the South African variant, although they still offer a good level of immunity.
US biotech firm Moderna and British-Swedish pharma giant Astrazeneca have both said they will trial a new vaccine for the South African variant. Studies showed Moderna’s current Covid vaccine was six times less effective against the new strain.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the government would leave “no stone unturned” in efforts to stamp out new mutations popping up across the UK.
Door-to-door testing for the South African variant launched in several parts of the country on Tuesday after a “small number” of people were found last week to be infected with the new mutation despite having no travel links.
Residents in the London boroughs of Ealing, Haringey and Croydon received knocks on the door this week asking them to take Covid tests for the new South African variant.