Vaccine developers said they are working on a new shot to combat the South African strain of coronavirus after early data suggested AstraZeneca Plc’s product has limited efficacy against mild disease caused by the variant.
There isn’t yet enough information from research to show whether the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is effective at preventing severe Covid-19 cases, hospitalization and deaths, the company said in a statement.
Sarah Gilbert, leading the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine program, said work was already under way to adapt the vaccine to deal specifically with the South African variant. The new shot is “very likely” to be available by autumn, she said.
“It’s easy to adapt the technology,” Gilbert said in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr show Sunday. “This year we expect to show that the new version of the vaccine will generate antibodies that recognize the new variant and then it will be very much like working on flu vaccines.”
The variant first identified in South Africa is emerging as a key threat to the world’s prospects for ending the pandemic as countries roll out initial vaccine doses. Although vaccine makers said their shots appear to maintain effectiveness against the U.K. variants, pharma companies are racing to develop booster shots against new strains as the virus evolves.
A new study with a relatively small sample size of more than 2,000 individuals, first reported in the Financial Times, suggested the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine offered less protection against the South African strain. None of the participants in the study died or was hospitalized, according to the paper, which said the study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and is due to be published on Monday.
“We do believe our vaccine could protect against severe disease, as neutralizing antibody activity is equivalent to that of other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimized to 8-12 weeks,” AstraZeneca said.
Gilbert said it’s possible current vaccines won’t reduce the number of cases of the South Africa variant, but will reduce deaths, hospitalizations and severe cases of the disease. “That’s really important for health-care systems. Even if we are having mild and asymptomatic infections, to prevent people from going into hospital with Covid would have a major effect,” she said.
U.K. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said all the country’s vaccines do have “some effect” on the South African strain, as well as the British variant. “We deploy the vaccines we have, they offer that protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death, which is what we need to do,” he said in an interview with the BBC Sunday.
Earlier this week, Astra’s executive vice president for biopharmaceutical research scaled back expectations for how the vaccine would work against the variant.
“We’re not going to be surprised to see reduced efficacy,” Mene Pangalos said. “It’s to be expected that there will be reduced activity.”