Extra funding to fast-track new vaccines will help “future-proof” the UK against new coronavirus variants, the vaccines minister has said.
Existing vaccines still protect against variants such as those identified in Kent and South Africa – but experts say it is also vital to stay a step ahead of a virus that keeps mutating.
The concern is about future variants that might escape this immunity.
Nadhim Zahawi said booster jabs would be ready to deploy from September.
Asked about reports in the Times that third jabs would be given to over-50s and those with underlying health conditions in the autumn, the vaccines minister said no decision had been made yet.
Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast the booster programme could begin in September “or later in the year, or early next year”.
He said clinicians would consider how well the protection from vaccines has lasted when deciding when to begin rolling out the programme.
Meanwhile, the extra funding from the government – £29.3m, on top of £19.7m already promised – will boost testing facilities at the Porton Down research laboratory.
It will also fund vaccine manufacture and allow scientists to accelerate the pace and scale of their work, according to the government.
The cash will allow scientists to test 3,000 blood samples a week, to measure the levels of protective antibodies against Covid-19 generated by different vaccines.
The government is already making plans for a booster Covid-vaccine programme in the autumn, to protect the most vulnerable ahead of winter.
Last week it ordered an extra 60 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which it said would be used alongside other vaccines for the boosters.
And it may use new, updated vaccines that are a better match for emerging variants.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are committed to supporting the UK’s flourishing life-sciences industry – and this announcement is yet another critical way we will build back better to protect the country over the coming months and years.”
UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “A new variant that can escape the current vaccines is the greatest risk of a third wave.
“This new investment will help us stay one step ahead of the virus by doubling our capacity to test vaccine effectiveness against emerging variants.
“While we expect the existing vaccines to offer protection against new variants, particularly preventing serious illness and death, it is important that we continue to monitor the picture as it develops.”
The government has already announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants, with 50 million doses pre-ordered.
Prof Neil Ferguson, an expert on the spread of infectious diseases who sits on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said new variants emerging posed the biggest risk to the UK’s progress in the pandemic.
“In the worst case scenario, if we have a new variant pop up which does manage to evade the vaccines, say late summer or early autumn, there may be a need to roll back on some of these measures (being eased) at least temporarily until we can boost people’s immunity,” he told the BBC.
“Do I think it’s likely to happen? No, I don’t. I think we are much more likely to be on a steady course now out of this pandemic, at least in this country.”
Prof Ferguson said variants would need to be monitored “carefully”, but the UK had gone from a “terrible situation” in January to a “remarkably good situation now”.
Covid restrictions are expected to be further eased on 17 May in England, Scotland and Wales, subject to government approval. In Northern Ireland, more restrictions may be lifted on 24 May.
On Tuesday, the UK reported another 1,946 daily infections, as well as a further four deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
The recorded number of deaths is often lower after weekends and bank holidays due to reporting lags.
The government’s latest data showed more than 50 million Covid vaccinations have been given in the UK so far, with 34.7 million first doses and 15.6 million second doses administered.
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