Vaccine expert says we should stop 'obsessing' about new variants of Covid

A top expert behind the Oxford vaccine has urged Brits not to “obsess” about every new variant of Covid.

Professor Andrew Pollard said the South African and Brazilian variants can still be fought with new jabs in the future, even if the current vaccine proves less effective.

The director of the Oxford Vaccine Group argued more variants will emerge in the future – but in every case, scientists will be working to ensure vaccines can work against them.

It comes after six cases of the P.1 variant from Manaus, Brazil, were found in the UK.

The whereabouts of one of the carriers is unknown due to an incomplete test card.

Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group Andrew Pollard
Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group Andrew Pollard

Health officials fear the variant might spread more easily and/or be more resistant to the vaccine than previous forms of coronavirus, due to mutations it shares with the South African strain. Work is ongoing to establish whether this is the case.

There are also concerns it could be linked to a surge in infections in Manaus, which was previously thought to have reached herd immunity.

Prof Pollard told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The nature of this virus is it will continue to throw up new mutations in time.

“And so to some extent we’ve got to start moving away from an obsession with each variant as it appears.

“But to try to rely on the excellent sequencing that’s being run nationally, to try to pick up new variants so new designs of vaccine can be made as and when they’re needed.”

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He said the South African B.1.351 variant and Brazilian P.1 variant – both of which have been seen in the UK – are of the greatest concern at the moment.

But he added both are being studied carefully – including to test if a vaccine against one will work on the other.

Ministers have already predicted many Brits will need a “booster shot” of the vaccine after their first two doses, to guard against new variants this winter and lengthen immunity.

It comes after Prof Pollard hailed “stunning” data that showed the effectiveness of both the Oxford and Pfizer jabs.

In a PHE study, protection against developing symptomatic Covid-19 in the over-70s ranged between 57% and 61% for one dose of Pfizer and between 60% and 73% for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

March 8: Schools reopen, up to two people can meet in the park for a coffee or picnic, and hand-holding care home visits can resume with one named visitor after tests and PPE.

March 29: Outdoor socialising rules relaxed so up to six people or two households (whichever is larger) can meet outdoors. Golf, tennis, outdoor organised sport and lidos resume. Stay at home order ends but people still advised to stay local and overnight stays not allowed.

STEP 2 – April 12 at the earliest: Non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms, and outdoor areas of pubs and restaurants reopen. No curfew or ‘Scotch egg’ rule but punters must stay seated and obey general rules on gathering sizes. Review to report back on possibility of foreign holidays but they’re still banned at this point. Driving lessons resume, and wedding guests up from 6 to 15. Self-contained domestic holidays allowed with your own household or bubble only.

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STEP 3 – May 17 at the earliest: Outdoor gatherings limit lifted from 6 people to 30. Indoor gatherings of up to 6 people or two households, and overnight stays allowed for the first time. Review to rule on whether you can hug friends and family but general social distancing remains. Foreign travel may be allowed. Indoor areas of pubs and restaurants reopen, as do hotels and B&Bs. Stadium events and theatre can resume at reduced capacity. Weddings limit lifted from 15 to 30, receptions allowed along with Bar Mitzvahs and other life events. Saunas and steam rooms reopen.

STEP 4 – June 21 at the earliest: Government hoping to remove all remaining legal restrictions – and reopen nightclubs and standing-only gigs – but will depend on review of wider social distancing rules and of vaccine and testing passports. Masks and hand-washing instructions may remain as may the two-metre rule in some situations or a testing regime. For a full guide click here.

Over-80s who had been vaccinated with one dose of either jab had more than 80% protection against hospital admission, while the Pfizer jab was 85% effective at preventing death from Covid-19.

More data is being analysed on how the Oxford jab prevents death, while further figures for the over-70s are expected shortly.

Prof Pollard told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the findings were “stunning”, and this was for two reasons.

“First of all, because these data come from the hardest group to protect – those who are the frailest, the oldest adults in our population – and we’re seeing an 80% reduction in hospitalisation in that group, which is stunning,” he said.

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Hospital admissions have been plummeting since the lockdown and jab rollout
Hospital admissions have been plummeting since the lockdown and jab rollout

“Second… both of the vaccines performed exactly the same, there was no daylight between them.

“We’ve had all this difficulty with communication, particularly around Europe, with uncertainty about the evidence, whereas in the UK we’ve been rolling out both vaccines in the confidence that they would both give high levels of protection.

“And that’s absolutely what we’ve seen now in this real-world evidence – that whether you’ve had a Pfizer vaccine or the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, you have very high levels of protection.”



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