Scientists are racing to tweak existing vaccines against the new Covid variant spreading rapidly across the planet.
The ‘monster’ strain, named Omicron and designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation on Friday, has reached the UK and Belgium after being discovered in South Africa.
The UN public health body sparked panic by warning that preliminary evidence suggested that the mutation has an increased risk of reinfection and is more transmissible than other strains. Downing Street’s scientists previously said that the variant could be vaccine resistant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia yesterday, telling MPs that there is ‘huge international concern’ about the mutation.
The Prime Minister is due to hold a press conference at 5pm this evening after health officials confirmed two cases of Omicron were found in Nottingham and Brentwood.
Now a number of pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines to beat Omicron. AstraZeneca said it has ‘developed, in close collaboration with Oxford University, a vaccine platform that enables us to respond quickly to new variants that may emerge’ and is ‘already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified’.
Pfizer and BioNTech said that in the event of a variant which could escape the effects of the vaccines, the firm expects ‘to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval’.
Novavax said it has ‘already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529 and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks’.
And Moderna said: ‘Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern. This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 microgram booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.’
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added that that most of the mutations are in similar regions seen in other Covid variants so far.
Scientists are racing to tweak existing vaccines against the new Covid variant spreading rapidly across the planet
The ‘monster’ strain, named Omicron and designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation on Friday, has reached the UK and Belgium after being discovered in South Africa
Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in the UK, South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers’ tests. There are also suspected individual cases being sequenced in Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia
Britain has sequenced two cases of the Omicron variant in Nottingham and Chelmsford, Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed this afternoon
British vaccine could give strong protection against new super-mutant Covid strain: Tweaked version of AstraZeneca jab is in final trial stages and may be ready within weeks
A British vaccine that could provide strong protection against the new super-mutant Covid strain is already in the final trial stages, it was revealed last night.
Should it prove effective, it could be ready for use within a matter of weeks.
The news was delivered by immunologist Professor Sir John Bell, a member of the government’s vaccine task force, who also revealed it was too late to stop ‘the monster’ variant currently ripping through Southern Africa from reaching our shores.
The latest AZ formula was originally created to fight the first South African variant of Covid, which threatened to spread widely last year before being overtaken by the Delta strain.
If needed, it could be ‘plugged in’ to modify the currently-used AZ vaccine with relative ease and be administered through booster shots.
Sir John and his Oxford University colleagues have been closely monitoring the new variant, B11529, which has some 30 mutations, since its surge began a few days ago.
But a more detailed analysis will get under way early next week using samples of the virus flown to Britain from South Africa in secure canisters.
Scientists hope to learn more about it such as its ability to spread and its capacity to cause serious illness.
The EU, US and Canada all followed Britain’s move to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa ahead of the WHO adding the strain, also known as B.1.1.529, to its highest category for concerning variants.
Mr Javid told the Commons on Friday that there are concerns the variant may be more transmissible, make existing vaccines less effective, and it may hinder one of the UK’s Covid treatments, Ronapreve.
Ministers were facing calls to go further to prevent a wave of the new variant arriving in Britain while a Delta surge is ongoing, as Belgium became the first EU country to announce a case.
Professor John Edmunds, who advises the Government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that could create a ‘very, very, very difficult situation’.
However, Prof Pollard said a new vaccine to combat Omicron could begin ‘very rapidly’ if required, adding: ‘The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.’
Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the Rega Institute in Belgium, said a sample was confirmed as the variant in a traveller who returned from Egypt on November 11 before first showing symptoms 11 days later.
The six African countries were added to the UK’s travel red list on Thursday evening and passengers arriving in the UK from these countries from 4am on Sunday will be required to book and pay for a Government-approved hotel quarantine for 10 days. Downing Street urged anyone who has arrived from those countries recently to get tested.
Mr Javid said discussions are ongoing over the prospect of adding further countries to the red list, telling the Commons the Government ‘won’t hesitate to act if we need to do so’.
Boris Johnson held a call with South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday afternoon after foreign minister Naledi Pandor said the flight ban ‘seems to have been rushed’.
The Prime Minister ‘commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing’ and its ‘leadership in transparently sharing scientific data’, Downing Street said.
‘They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel,’ a statement said.
Prof Edmunds said the new strain ‘is a huge worry’ and that ‘all the data suggests’ it would be able to evade current immunity.
‘Our fears are it would do so to a large extent,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
NOTTINGHAM: One case of Omicron has been found in Nottingham, where infections have been creeping up steadily in recent weeks in line with the national picture
CHELMSFORD: The other was found in Chelmsford, Essex, which has seen a similar trend. The city saw at least 135 new cases on Wednesday, the latest date regional data is available for
South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average for cases in the country
Prof Edmunds urged ministers to look at extending travel restrictions and to prepare a plan to deal with Omicron because ‘at some point we’re going to get this variant here in the UK’.
Professor Calum Semple, another Sage adviser, told BBC Breakfast: ‘If you can slow the virus coming into the country because you’re timed for the booster campaign to get ahead of it, and it (then) leaves the scientists to see if there is anything to worry about, which it doesn’t seem it.
‘The virus will get here by hook or crook, eventually, it will come here as people are asymptomatic, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and slow it down.’
He said he is an advocate of masks and hand-washing and said: ‘I feel particularly uncomfortable on public transport. I’m pro-mask in the shops and public transport. We still have high levels of coronavirus but the vaccines are working.’
Professor Semple encouraged people to get their coronavirus booster vaccines.
Professor Brendan Wren, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said people should ‘stay calm and not overreact’, adding that scientists can ‘easily modify vaccines to meet new variants’.
Striking an optimistic tone in the Daily Mail, he wrote: ‘In the arms race against the virus, humanity is winning – and we are well prepared. This is not the last time another variant will emerge.
‘In the meantime, it is vital to remember to stay calm and not overreact.’