Updated versions of already authorised COVID-19 vaccines, tweaked to deal with new variants of the coronavirus, will not have to go through a lengthy testing and approval process, the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has said.
The announcement follows a week in which UK authorities have desperately tried to contain the spread of P1, also known as the Brazilian variant, which experts fear could escape some of the effects of current vaccines.
Boosters for handling emerging viral variants will only need to show that they are safe and elicit a strong immune response in people. They will not have to demonstrate actual protection against the virus, as researchers believe that measuring the antibodies generated will be sufficient proof that the vaccines work.
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This announcement underlines the likelihood that updated COVID-19 vaccines will be needed to handle variants such as P1 in the future. This variant is a particular concern as it carries the E484K mutation, which means it’s likely to be somewhat resistant to the vaccines currently available, says Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading.
Other variants of concern are also present in Britain. B1525, also seen in Denmark and Nigeria, has been added to a global watch list of troubling viral variants. It also has the E484K mutation, as well as some other mutations and deletions to its genome, writes Sharon Peacock, Director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). It’s thought that some of these might make this variant more infective.
So far, there’s no way of telling what impact – if any – these and other variants are having on the effects of COVID-19 vaccines in the UK. Data on their effectiveness is only beginning to emerge. So far, it looks very positive: hospitalisations among vaccinated groups are down significantly. Still, studies of how well these vaccines are doing in the real world aren’t as rigorous as full clinical trials, so we should be cautious in how we interpret them, writes Mark Toshner, Lecturer in Translational Respiratory Medicine at the University of Cambridge.
And, while it seems vaccines are having an impact on people developing severe disease in the UK, we still have very limited understanding on whether they stop people transmitting the virus. Indeed, no vaccine blocks 100% of people from being infected, says Deborah Fuller, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Washington. On top of this, the emerging variants could reduce the transmission-blocking potential of vaccines too.
It’s very important we keep this in mind. A recent survey from the Office for National Statistics found that more than 40% of over-80s had broken lockdown rules after receiving their second COVID-19 vaccine dose. This suggests the potential risk of still being able to transmit the virus after being vaccinated is either widely misunderstood or else being ignored.