England’s deputy chief medical officer has said he hopes existing vaccines will give protection against coronavirus variants as it was announced an extra 60 million jab doses have been secured for an autumn booster programme.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said it was difficult to assess how new variants could impact vaccines being rolled out in the UK, but added that he hoped the inoculations would continue to protect against severe illness.
It comes as the Government announced that an extra 60 million doses of the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech have been secured for a booster vaccination programme in the autumn.
This additional stock of the jab – which has been rolled out in the UK since December – is the same as the version currently in use, and so is not variant specific.
Prof Van-Tam told a Downing Street press conference that data shows the current jabs are working “extremely well” against the dominant variant in the UK – the Kent B117 variant.
He said on Wednesday that case numbers of the variants first discovered in India, Brazil and South Africa had grown in the UK.
“I couldn’t call the numbers trivial but at the same token I don’t see them rushing away now or in the next few weeks in terms of giving us a new kind of problem,” he said.
“The way you test these vaccines against these variants is either you have that variant circulating widely in your population, and you then kind of learn the hard way whether vaccines are working or not – you gain real-life epidemiological data.
“We can’t do that if they are not circulating – we are trying not to let them circulate so we are not going to create that situation so instead what we do are a series of laboratory studies called neutralisation studies.”
In light of available studies, he added: “Likely in my view, the first thing to go – if something goes – will be protecting against infection, but I hope protection against severe disease will be much more solid and much more lasting.”
The Government said it will publish further details on the booster programme in due course, with the policy informed by advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Officials will also assess the results of clinical trials which have studied the use of different combinations of approved vaccines.
Referring to a study due to launch in the summer, Prof Van-Tam said: “We will get an idea then of which give you the highest boost, which perhaps give you the broadest boost against a range of coronavirus variants, and indeed what the timings look like on that.
“That is another reason why the vaccines task force has invested in contracts with not just one or two manufacturers, but six or seven.
“So that we have that optionality, so we can always try and do the very best thing scientifically, within the constraints of what we can realise in terms of supply at the time.”
Three are currently approved for us in the UK – Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna – while the medicines regulator is carrying out a rolling review to assess the Janssen and Novavax vaccines.
It comes as people aged 42 and over in England were called to come forward to get their vaccine, while one in four (25%) UK adults have had their second coronavirus jab.