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A military medic prepares the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at the Elland Road mass vaccination centre in Leeds, England, on Feb. 8, 2021.

Danny Lawson/The Associated Press

It is not yet clear whether the world needs a new set of vaccines to fight different variants of the novel coronavirus but scientists are working on new ones so there is no reason for alarm, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group said on Tuesday.

South Africa has paused a planned rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccines after data showed it gave minimal protection against mild infection among young people from the dominant variant there, stoking fears of a much longer battle with the pathogen.

AstraZeneca and Oxford University aim to produce a next generation of vaccines that will protect against variants as soon as the fall before the Northern Hemisphere winter, AstraZeneca’s research chief said this month.

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“There are definitely new questions about variants that we’re going to be addressing. And one of those is: do we need new vaccines?,” Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial, told BBC radio.

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“I think the jury is out on that at the moment, but all developers are preparing new vaccines so if we do need them, we’ll have them available to be able to protect people.”

Vaccines are seen as the swiftest path out of the COVID-19 crisis which has killed 2.33 million people and turned normal life upside down for billions.

Researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford said in a prior-to-peer analysis that the AstraZeneca vaccine provided minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the South African variant among young people.

TARGET POPULATION

Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalization or death could not be assessed in the study of around 2,000 volunteers who had a median age of 31 as the target population were at such low risk, the researchers said.

“I think there’s clearly a risk of confidence in the way that people may perceive you. But as I say I don’t think that there is any reason for alarm today,” Prof. Pollard said.

“The really important question is about severe disease and we didn’t study that in South Africa, because that wasn’t the point of that study, we were specifically asking questions about young adults.”

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The South African variant, known by scientists as 20I/501Y.V2 or B.1.351, is the dominant one in South Africa and is circulating in 41 countries around the world including the United States.

Other major variants include the British variant, or 20I/501Y.V1, and the Brazilian variant known as P.1.

An analysis of infections by the South African variant showed there was only a 22-per-cent lower risk of developing mild-to-moderate COVID-19 if vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot versus those given a placebo.

If vaccines do not work as effectively as hoped against new and emerging variants, the world could be facing a much longer – and more expensive – battle against the virus than previously thought.

“As long as we have enough immunity to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death then we’re going to be fine in the future in the pandemic,” Prof. Pollard said.

Prof. Pollard said the South African government was right to look at how it deployed the AstraZeneca vaccine because the original plan was to use it in young adults – particularly health care workers – who were not expected to get severe disease.

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“It needs a relook at how best to deploy the vaccine,” Prof. Pollard said.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak. The Globe and Mail

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