UK in talks with AstraZeneca to secure 'variant vaccine' targeting South Africa strain

2 June 2021, 17:06 | Updated: 2 June 2021, 17:45

The traditional Oxford-AstraZeneca jab appears to be less effective against the South African strain
The traditional Oxford-AstraZeneca jab appears to be less effective against the South African strain. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The UK is in talks with AstraZeneca to secure a 'variant vaccine' designed to tackle the coronavirus strain first identified in South Africa.

The traditional Oxford-AstraZeneca jab appears to be less effective against the B.1.351 strain, recently named the Beta variant.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed on Tuesday that the Government had started negotiations with the pharmaceutical giant.

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In a speech delivered at the Jenner Institute in Oxford, he said: "There is yet more to do, the work isn't over yet - we're still procuring all the time and planning what we need to keep this country safe, including new vaccines specifically targeted at variants of concern.

"I can tell you today that we've started commercial negotiations with AstraZeneca to secure a variant vaccine - future supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that have been adapted to tackle the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

"Once again, we're leading the way and backing projects with potential, so we can keep our vaccination programme one step ahead of the virus and protect the progress that we've all made."

AstraZeneca said that any future version of its vaccine would need to be approved for use by medicines regulators.

In a statement, the company said: "AstraZeneca is in discussions with the UK government regarding future versions of our Covid-19 vaccine to specifically address variants.

"We will share more details in due course.

"Any future version of the vaccine would need to be approved for use by the medicines regulator."

Because of concerns about the variant, Test and Trace experts have jumped on any case found in the UK, and launched immediate rapid Covid-19 lab tests for people in areas where clusters have been identified.

Surge testing and so-called enhanced contact tracing has been deployed in a number of areas including parts of London.

Up to May 19, 904 cases had been identified in the UK - a rise of 41 from the previous week, according to Public Health England data.

Pfizer has previously said there is currently no evidence that its jab needs updating against current known variants.

It comes as it was announced that three-quarters of adults in the UK are estimated to have received their first dose of a vaccine.

A total of 39,585,665 first doses have now been delivered since the vaccination rollout began almost six months ago.

This is the equivalent of 75.2% of all people aged 18 and over.

The latest figures also show that an estimated 49.5% of UK adults are now fully vaccinated.

The Government has said it intends to offer a second dose of a vaccine to all adults aged 50 and over by June 21.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday said there is "nothing in the data" to suggest the lifting of coronavirus restrictions on that date will not go ahead.

However, he added that the data is "still ambiguous" and "we just need to give it a little bit longer" before a firm decision is made.