Oxford scientists poised to update vaccine rapidly ‘if necessary'

The University of Oxford has said that it can “rapidly” update its Covid-19 vaccine “if it should be necessary” amid rising concerns about the Omicron variant.

Academics at the university, who pioneered the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, said that if the jab needed to be tweaked then the “necessary tools and processes” are in place.

But in a statement, the university stressed the vaccine continued to provide high levels of protection despite the appearance of other new variants, including Delta.

A University of Oxford spokesperson said: “Due to the very recent discovery of the new B.1.1.529 (Omicron) strain of coronavirus, there are limited data available at this time.

(PA Graphics)

“As with any new variant, we will carefully evaluate the implications of the emergence of B.1.1.529 for vaccine immunity.

“Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different.

“However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated Covid-19 vaccine if it should be necessary.’

Meanwhile, Moderna bosses have predicted there could be a “material drop” in the level of protection afforded by the current vaccines when put up against the Omicron variant.

Stephane Bancel, chief executive of the pharmaceutical company, told the Financial Times: “There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level… we had with [the] Delta [variant].

“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to… are like, ‘This is not going to be good’.”

Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla said that the firm has already started making a vaccine against the Omicron variant.

He told the US business news channel CNBC: “Within 95 days, basically we will have a new vaccine.”

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It is not yet known whether the new variant will evade the protection afforded by the vaccines or past infection with other variants such as Delta.

Scientists are doing lab tests to assess whether the virus shows resistance against vaccinated samples.

They will also be monitoring the situation in the community.

Professor Paul Moss, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that scientists are “well prepared” to tweak the vaccines in the event that the Omicron variant evades the protection afforded by the current vaccines.

Prof Moss, from the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham, told Sky News: “We know that we may lose some immunity with this virus. So what is happening is we are boosting our immune levels to super-high levels with the plans that were introduced yesterday, and that should retain some protection.

“What we’ve seen with Covid is that things change very rapidly. And I think we need at least three weeks to assess this.

“We need excellent epidemiology and, within the laboratory, people are testing the resistance of the virus. So we will need that sort of time. And we will know a lot more before Christmas.”

He added: “Well, as you know, the companies have already started – the gene has been cloned, but typically talking around 100 days.

“We’ve learned so much in the last 18 months – nobody felt we would get a vaccine within a year when the pandemic started, and we did – we got several.

“So it will be accelerated and, of course, if we were in that severe situation – but I really hope that we won’t get to, by the way – we’re very well prepared. We know what to do.”

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that the UK had to “act immediately and not wait” after the discovery of the Omicron variant.

He told BBC Breakfast: “The main question is whether it’s able to evade the immunity that we’ve got to some extent from the vaccine so far and the infections we’ve all had.

“And so because of that, and because of the possibility of a major wave, the thing to do now is to act immediately and not wait.”

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