New Covid-19 vaccines may not be needed if the current jabs can prevent severe disease and keep people out of hospital, MPs have heard.
Professor Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford University vaccine group, told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus that the jury was still out on whether new vaccines would be necessary.
However, scientists and pharmaceutical firms are currently working on getting new vaccines ready anyway, in an effort to protect against new strains.
AstraZeneca, whose vaccine with Oxford is currently being rolled out across the UK, has said it expected to have a new vaccine to tackle variants of Covid-19 by the autumn.
Prof Pollard said: “As we move to a point where more people are immunised around the world, or have natural infection, the virus will only survive if it is able to make new versions of itself that can still spread… despite that immunity.
“I think we have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be the future.
“Our question at the moment is are we going to need new vaccines? Not to prevent that spread… but to stop people going into hospital?
“At this point, the jury is still out on that. All of the vaccines in the trials in those regions where new variants are emerging - we are not seeing a sudden shift where lots of people who are vaccinated are ending up in hospital.
“They are still being protected from hospitalisation. We need more data to be secure on this… but if that’s the case, we might need boosters, we might need tweaks every year, but actually we might not.
“We might be generating enough immunity with the current generation of vaccines to stop severe disease.”
Cutting risk of severe symptoms
Prof Pollard told MPs that he expects the current vaccines to have a “huge impact on transmission” against the Covid-19 variants that are prominent in the UK at the moment.
He explained that it is always possible a “super-strain” might emerge in the future, but what matters is if the vaccines can prevent people from becoming so ill that they do not need to go to hospital.
He said “if people have just got the sniffles, then I think our job is done,” but added that new vaccines must be prepared in case they are needed.
The leading expert said that both international surveillance and scientific developments will help in dealing with new variants in the future, allowing scientists to monitor strains that have emerged in different parts of the world.
Another way is to look at spike proteins to “cover an anticipated change the virus might bring in”.
However, Prof Pollard explained that the difficulty with coronavirus is that it is always changing and new variants which can escape immunity will arise, allowing the virus to spread.
He said: “Going after individuals who are transmitting is really helpful in that it can halt a wave of disease, but only if you are dealing with a vaccine that is well-matched to the particular variant that you have at that moment.
“And of course we don’t know what the next wave of spread will look like and it could well be that it’s with a variant that we’re not prepared for and then there’ll be further spread afterwards.”
But he said all the data from vaccines so far suggests that the current jabs will have a “big impact on severe disease”.
He added: “There’s a high chance, I think, that we could be in a position later in the year where there’s a new wave of spread but as long and we’ve got lots of people vaccinated in the population we won’t see so many severe cases at all and we’ll be getting ahead of that bit of it, but we may have a much bigger problem in stopping transmission.”