Moderna is set to trial its new Covid-19 vaccine specially designed to tackle a new coronavirus strain that first emerged in South Africa, the company announced today.
The US pharmaceutical firm said laboratory tests showed its current vaccine appears to work against the UK Covid variant first identified in Kent.
However, it warned that the jab, set to be rolled out in the UK later this year, may not be as effective against the South African strain.
Moderna said the neutralising antibody response to the South African variant was six times lower than to the original variant, sparking concerns that it may only provide short-term immunity against the strain.
The biotech group said it would subsequently launch two new studies into the variant, alongside testing a separate vaccine on patients in the coming months.
“The virus is changing its stripes, and we will change to make sure we can beat the virus where it’s going,” Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, told the Washington Post.
“The unknown is would we feel it’s necessary to do that, would public health officials want this at that point or would they still be comfortable? What we’re trying to do is create an option.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock yesterday said the UK has so far identified 77 cases of the South African coronavirus variant.
He added that all cases of the mutation appeared to have been brought into the country from abroad, and were being monitored carefully for any signs of spread.
“There is not what we call community transmission where you find a case that you can’t find the link back to travel,” said Hancock. “At the moment it is all linked to travel.”
Nine cases of a variant first identified in Brazil had also been identified, he added, though it is unclear at this stage whether current vaccines will be effective against it.
UK variant ‘more deadly’
It comes after the Prime Minister warned on Friday that there is “some evidence” that the new Covid variant first identified in the UK is more deadly than other strains.
The new Covid strain, known as the “UK variant” in other parts of the world, may carry a 30 per cent increase in fatality than the original variant, Boris Johnson said.
For people in their 60s, this would mean around 13 out of 1,000 infected with the new variant would die, compared with 10 out of 1,000 with the old variant, data from Nervtag showed.
Johnson warned that the new strain was applying “intense pressure” on the NHS as a result, with the number of patients in hospital with Covid 78 per cent higher than in the peak of the first wave.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said scientists were now “confident” that the coronavirus mutation is also between 30 and 70 per cent more transmissible than the original Covid strain.
But in a boost to the UK’s plans to vaccinate the most-vulnerable by mid-February, he added that there is currently no evidence to suggest there was no current evidence to suggest that either the Pfizer/Biontech or Astrazeneca vaccines would not be effective against the new variant.