Oxford vaccine only offers ‘limited protection’ against mild cases of South African variant, study finds

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to offer only limited protection against mild disease caused by the South African variant of coronavirus, according to new research.

Early data from the study, due to be published on Monday, shows the jab may protect against severe disease caused by the mutation, though data is limited.

The study from the University of Oxford and South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, first reported by the Financial Times, involved more than 2,000 people, most of whom were young and healthy. It is yet to be peer-reviewed.

The study has some limitations. While there were no serious cases in the study group, few elderly and vulnerable people were involved.

A spokesperson for AstraZeneca said: “In this small phase I/II trial, early data has shown limited efficacy against mild disease primarily due to the B.1.351 South African variant.

“We do believe our vaccine could protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to that of other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to eight to 12 weeks.”

Professor Robin Shattock, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research at Imperial College London, urged caution over the findings.

He told BBC Breakfast: “It’s a very small study with just over 2,000 people and it’s not published so we can only judge it from the press release and press coverage. But it is concerning to some extent that we’re seeing that it’s not effective against mild or moderate disease.”

Prof Shattock stressed: “I think everybody should remember that having a vaccine is going to prevent you ending up in hospital with these current strains.

“We also need to be cautious about still, even though you will get some protection from a single dose, behaving as if you don’t, in order to maximise your chances of getting total protection when you get that second dose and minimise the chances of being able to transmit it on if you get one of these variant strains.”

The news follows research published on Friday which indicates that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is effective in fighting the new UK coronavirus variant.

Of the many mutations of the virus into new variants, only a tiny minority are likely to be important or change the virus in a significant way, according the British Medical Journal.

“Oxford University and AstraZeneca have started adapting the vaccine against this variant and will advance rapidly through clinical development so that it is ready for autumn delivery should it be needed,” the AstraZeneca spokesperson added.

Researchers are already looking at ways to modify the existing vaccines quickly and simply, to protect against new variants.

As of Friday, the UK had given a first jab to nearly 11.5 million people and is aiming to reach 15 million vaccinations by 15 February.

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