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AstraZeneca races to adapt Covid vaccine as South Africa halts rollout

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The dose of Oxford University / AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will be displayed from its box on January 2nd, 2021 at the Princess Royal Hospital, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, UK.

Gareth Fuller | Reuters

Drug maker AstraZeneca is making efforts to adapt its Covid-19 vaccine in light of new variants of the virus. The process is becoming more urgent after a small study found it less effective at protecting against the more virulent strain discovered in South Africa.

The country said it will end the use of the shot in its vaccination program after a study published on Sunday that has not yet been peer-reviewed found the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild to moderate illnesses caused by the South African variant will.

Researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and others in South Africa, as well as the University of Oxford, found the study was small, with only about 2,000 volunteers, with a mean age of 31. Oxford University said: “Protection from moderate to severe illness, hospitalization or death could not be assessed in this study because the target group was exposed to such a low risk.”

The vaccine manufacturers had already started developing second-generation Covid vaccines, which will target new variants of the virus. Experts say it shouldn’t be too difficult to tweak existing vaccines to cover mutations, and that they could be adjusted within six weeks.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University who developed the vaccine with AstraZeneca, said Sunday that “efforts are being made to develop a new generation of vaccines that will allow protection on new variants as booster jabs redirect if this is the case. ” it turns out that it is necessary to do so. “

“We are working with AstraZeneca to optimize the pipeline that would be required for a strain change should one become necessary. This is the same problem all vaccine developers face and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in the readiness for a future change of burden.

The variant, officially known as the B.1.351 mutation, was first detected in South Africa in October 2020 and has since become dominant in the country.

Several cases have also been found elsewhere of health officials making efforts to stop the spread of the mutation, which has been found to be more contagious. There were already concerns that this variant might be more resistant to coronavirus vaccines developed last year.

With the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University jab stopped, the South African government will instead offer vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

In late January, Johnson & Johnson reported that its single-dose shot was 57% effective in one of its clinical trials in South Africa, where almost all Covid-19 cases (95%) were due to variant B infection. 1,351 descent. For comparison, the vaccine was found to be 72% effective in the US arm of the study.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have both reported early signs that their vaccinations offer protection against new known variants of the virus found in South Africa and the UK

On Friday, Oxford University released details of a separate study showing the vaccine was effective against a variant of the virus that was first discovered in south-east England and has now become the dominant strain in the UK

Andrew Pollard, professor of pediatric infection and immunity and lead investigator of the Oxford vaccine study, said data from studies of its vaccine in the UK “shows that the vaccine protects not only against the original pandemic virus, but also against the novel variant B.1.1 .7, which caused the rise in disease across the UK from late 2020. “

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Robert Dunfee