As Britain rolled out a desperately-awaited new coronavirus vaccine Monday, top health officials and scientists sounded an ominous warning that it and other existing vaccines could prove less effective against a new mutation of the virus.
But don’t panic. Scientists are confident that if current vaccines don’t work against the so-called South African strain of the virus, then the vaccines should be able to be adapted in a relatively short time to provide protection.
“In the worst-case scenario, if the virus changes so that current vaccines become less effective, then the vaccines can be adapted to cover these changes,” Lawrence S. Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, told VICE World News.
“The anticipation is that as these would be relatively small changes in the overall configuration of the vaccine, [and] approval for clinical use could be fast-tracked.”
With the UK ravaged by the uncontrolled spread of the virus, three-quarters of England under the harshest restrictions and Prime Minister Boris Johnson due to announce an even tougher lockdown on Monday night, there’s a lot riding on the new Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The government hopes that the new vaccine, which is cheaper and more easily transported than the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine already administered to more than a million people in the UK, will allow it to deliver tens of millions of doses in the coming months, gradually allowing Britain to emerge from the pandemic.
Scientists believe existing vaccines will prove effective against the highly-transmissible Kent mutation, first detected in the UK and since spread to other countries, which has driven much of the surge in infections in Britain.
But John Bell, an Oxford University professor of medicine who is one of the UK government's coronavirus advisers, told Times Radio on Sunday there was a “big question mark” over whether the vaccines would be effective against another highly contagious strain which has spread to the UK from South Africa, where it has become the dominant virus strain in parts of the country.
Bell said he “would worry a lot about the South African strain,” which has multiple mutations in the “spike” protein that the virus uses to infect cells.
“The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein,” he said.
“My gut feeling is the vaccine will still be effective against the Kent strain… I don’t know about the South African strain — there’s a big question mark about that.”
His concerns were reflected in comments by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday, who said he was “incredibly worried” about the South African strain.
“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa and movement from South Africa,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, citing a government scientific adviser, tweeted that the reason for the government’s concern about the South African strain “is that they are not as confident the vaccines will be as effective against it as they are for the UK’s variant.”
While Public Health England has said there is currently no evidence to suggest that vaccines will not be effective against the variant, scientists say there are indications they may not work as well.
Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the changes to some of the virus’ spike protein, which were more extensive than those found in the Kent variation, “may make the virus less susceptible to the immune response triggered by the vaccines.”
Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, agreed, saying “the accumulation of more spike mutations in the South African variant are more of a concern and could lead to some escape from immune protection.”
He said that while it was unclear whether the mutations would affect the severity of disease caused by the virus, it appeared to be more infectious, making harsher lockdowns across the UK “inevitable.”
“It is essential that we do everything possible to prevent the South African variant from spreading to the UK population,” he said.
But scientists cautioned that even if existing vaccines proved less effective than the South African strain, that wasn’t a reason to despair.
Both Bell and Young said that, if needed, it should be possible for a vaccine to be adapted to work against virus mutations within 4-6 weeks.
“The mRNA vaccines are very readily adapted – almost plug and play – and could be altered within weeks,” said Young.
Last month, amid rising international concern about the rapid spread of the Kent strain, the co-founder of BioNTech said he was confident the vaccine would work against the UK mutation — and that, if needed, a new vaccine could be developed within six weeks.
Meanwhile, James Naismith, senior research fellow in structural biology at Oxford University and director of the government-funded Rosalind Franklin Institute, said that while health officials and scientists raced to get the vaccine delivered, the public could play its part by stopping the further transmission of the virus — and not spreading doomsday scenarios or conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
“We can all help if we redouble our efforts to wash our hands, wear a mask and socially distance,” he said.
“The faster and further the vaccine is rolled out, the quicker the end to this nightmare.”