Some of the new coronavirus variants may be able to “get round” vaccines but it is “quite easy” to make adjustments to deal with this, according to the Government’s chief scientific adviser.
Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street briefing it was likely that the jabs currently available will provide protection against other variants of the virus, but added: “The question is to what degree.”
It comes amid concerns over a variant emerging in Brazil, which has led to the banning of all flights from South America – although it has not yet been detected in the UK.
Another mutation discovered in Brazil has been detected in the UK but, while analysis of both variants is ongoing, experts say it is no cause for concern.
The Government banned direct flights from South Africa when a new variant emerged there, while concerns were also raised over a mutation identified in the UK.
Sir Patrick said: “It is possible that the variants will get round vaccines to some extent in the future and some of them that are out there in the world now may well have more of an effect to bypass some of the existing immune system that has come up in response to a vaccine or previous infection.
“The new types of vaccine, particularly the messenger RNA vaccines, are really quite easy to adjust to changes in the virus. And that is a big change in vaccine technology, it’s a very important advance.
“It’s essentially days to make a new starting point, weeks probably to get to a new vaccine if it’s needed, provided the regulators are happy with the approach.”
He added: “I think it is likely that the vaccine we have now is going to protect against the UK variant and is going to provide protection I suspect against the other variants as well. The question is to what degree.”
Meanwhile, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who was involved in development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, said those producing vaccines were responding to these new variants.
“I know for sure that both AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer are busy making a South African version and I know the AstraZeneca team are also looking at that very seriously in fact, they’re well under way,” he told Times Radio.
He said it was “relatively straightforward” to produce a new vaccine at this stage, adding: “So I think it’s important that people don’t get too anxious about it.”
During the news briefing, Sir Patrick said he expected the vaccines to reduce virus transmission but stressed that “we shouldn’t go mad” while jabs are rolled out.
“It would be very surprising for vaccines that are this effective not to have a decent effect on transmission,” he told reporters.
“I don’t think it will be complete suppression of transmission, I think there will still be transmission.
“It is important to remember. It means just because you’ve been vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t catch this and pass it on, it means you’re protected against severe disease.
“And therefore we shouldn’t go mad when people start getting vaccinated and assume that everything is OK and you can’t pass it on, you can’t catch it or give it to somebody else. That still will be the case.
“So we’ve got to be cautious as we go through this but I expect the vaccines to have an effect on transmission reduction.”
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