Results suggesting the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine doesn't stop people falling mildly unwell with the South African variant are not a 'reason for alarm', the lead scientist behind trials of the jab said today.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, claimed evidence from Oxford's own human trials in South Africa strongly indicated the vaccine still prevents serious illness and death against the new strain.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: 'As long as we have enough immunity to prevent severe disease, hospitalisations and death, then we're going to be fine in the future in the pandemic.'
A small study in Johannesburg on Sunday showed Oxford/AstraZeneca's jab may not stop many people from falling unwell. The finding caused widespread panic because it suggests vaccinated people can still pick up and transmit the disease.
But Professor Pollard urged people not to lose sight of the main goal of the vaccines, which is to bring hospital admissions and fatality rates down to manageable levels so that draconian lockdowns can be eased.
He said new variants could become a staple in the future, but so long as they only cause mild illness then they will be no different to 'most of the viruses that cause colds every winter'.
"New variants of the virus are causing increasing concern, not least because the latest research suggests that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may not work against the South African variant. However, I remain optimistic, and here’s why."— The Times (@thetimes) February 9, 2021
✒️ Dr Mark Porter https://t.co/lbXL3FY9Yl
His comments were echoed by Professor David Heymann, a top epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said today people were going to have to 'learn to live with' Covid being endemic.
Pressed on the findings from Sunday, Professor Pollard told the BBC: 'I think, in many ways, it's exactly what we would have expected, because the virus is introducing mutations, as we've discussed before, to allow it to still transmit in populations where there's some immunity.
'And we already knew in South Africa that the virus was able to cause mild infections in people who were infected earlier last year.
'So that is not surprising then that with vaccines, also with mild infection, it's going to be possible to see that.
'So, in a way the study in South Africa absolutely confirms what we understand about the biology – that the virus has to transmit between people to survive.
'It has to mutate to do that. And it's done that in South Africa already. And that will affect mild disease in people who've been vaccinated.'
He hinted that Oxford's own trials in South Africa had shown the vaccine is effective at preventing hospitalisations and deaths.
Professor Pollard said: 'The really important point though is that all vaccines, everywhere in the world where they've been tested, are still preventing severe disease and death.
'And I think that is perhaps the clue to the future here, that we are going to see new variants arise and they will spread in the population, like most of the viruses that cause colds every winter.
'But, as long as we have enough immunity to prevent severe disease, hospitalisations and death, then we're going to be fine in the future in the pandemic.'
In a separate interview with the Today programme, Professor Heymann was asked if people were going to have to 'learn to live with' coronavirus circulating.
He said: 'It certainly seems like that in the shorter term, and probably in the long term as well.
South African Covid variant case numbers in UK 'very small' – video https://t.co/Xwy8tX1QSQ— Guardian news (@guardiannews) February 8, 2021
'Most experts believe that this disease is now becoming endemic, but the good thing is that we have many tools including vaccines with which we can deal with this virus.'
Drawing a comparison with the spread of HIV/Aids, he added: 'We've learned to live with it, as we'll learn to live with this infection as well.'
But despite Professor Pollard and Professor Heymann's calls for calm, a top SAGE scientist warned today Britain could be trapped in lockdown cycles for 'several years' as it's forced to wrestle with new variants.
Professor Sir Ian Boyd, an infectious disease expert at the University of St Andrews, said the emergence of potentially jab-resistant strains means the UK could be stuck in a pattern of 'control and release for a long time to come'.
Evidence suggests the Oxford University vaccine – the main weapon in Britain's arsenal to combat the virus – does not stop people falling ill with the South African variant, which is feared to be spreading in the community already.
Professor Boyd and several other prominent SAGE members have warned reopening the current shutdown too early could risk allowing new, equally concerning variants to spawn.
Mutations randomly happen as viruses spread but most changes never change the way it looks or behaves. Very high transmission gives the virus more opportunity to mutate and, therefore, drives up the risk that one of the alterations could change the course of the disease.
Professor Boyd told The Times: 'It stands to reason that the more people there are in the population with infections — the prevalence — the more virus that is replicating and the more chance there is of even highly improbable mutations happening.'
He warned even if Britain gets on top of the South African strain, there will be more concerning ones down the line. He added: 'My suspicion is that we will experience a damped oscillation of control-release for a long time to come — perhaps several years.'
Professor Graham Medley, another SAGE member who is an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the newspaper that 'everything works better' when there is lower prevalence, adding that the emergence of new variants 'strengthens that case'.
The Government has promised to look at lifting the most draconian curbs when the most vulnerable have been given at least one dose of vaccine, which they hope will drive down hospital admissions and deaths to manageable levels.
But yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock left the door open to longer restrictions in the face of the South African strain — risking furious backlash from Tory backbenchers who've accused No10 of 'moving the goalposts' over ending lockdown.
Several other prominent leading scientists have already come out in support of extending the current shutdown to reduce the risk of the South African stain becoming widespread.
Professor Robin Shattock, of Imperial College London, who does not sit on SAGE but is a leader in advanced vaccine development, told The Times: 'It would be very advisable to try to push the cases as low as possible to reduce the chance of additional variants. This would make sense alongside border restrictions.'
And Professor Mike Tildesley, from Warwick University, who also sits on SAGE, threw his support behind longer restrictions yesterday.
So far there have only been 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant in the UK but this is likely to be a vast underestimate because up until last week officials were only analysing 10 per cent of random positive swabs.
Scientists say the true number of cases is likely 10 to 20 times higher than the official count. No10 has deployed extra testing into more than 10 areas of England where the South African strain is thought to be spreading in the community.
The Prime Minister yesterday refused to rule out extending lockdown if the South African variant continues to spread.
Pressed on whether there may need to be a delay to easing restrictions if the jab is proven to be less effective at reducing transmission of the South African variant, the Prime Minister said vaccines are 'going to offer a way out' and 'remain of massive benefit to our country' — but failed to dismiss the prospect of a lockdown extension.
During a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility in Derby, he said: 'We're very confident in all the vaccines that we're using. And I think it's important for people to bear in mind that all of them, we think, are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death, which is the most important thing.'
But Government sources said on Sunday night there was 'no indication' the easing of lockdown would be affected by the findings that the Oxford vaccine is less effective against the South African variant.
A tweaked version of the Oxford vaccine that targets the new strain is already in development and should be ready by August.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.