Ministers and health officials are particularly concerned about the South African mutation, also known as 501.V2 or B.1.351. A recent study has revealed that the AstraZeneca vaccine may not be able to prevent mild and moderate illnesses caused by it. Currently, 147 cases of the South African variant have been recorded in the UK, but that number is expected to increase rapidly.
Scientists think that even if the AstraZeneca vaccine prevents serious illness from the virus, it will not be able to stop its spread.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that boosters jabs in the autumn and annual vaccines could be required to counter the new viral strains.
He said this would be done “in the way we do with flu vaccinations, where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, you rapidly produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation”.
The Government plans to administer booster jabs through high street pharmacists, if only the most vulnerable require the extra dose.
However, there are also plans to keep the networks of vaccination centres up and running if the entire population requires further vaccination.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, Oxford lead vaccine developer, said vaccines should still protect against severe disease.
She said that a modified Oxford jab should already be available by the autumn to combat the South African strain.
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Professor Shabir Madhi, the University of the Witwatersrand researcher who led the study into how the Oxford jab performed against the South African strain, said that the findings would require governments to reconsider their approach to combating the virus.
He said: “It is unfortunately time for us to recalibrate our expectations.
“The data are fairly compelling that it will not protect against mild infection, but it will be of some use against severe Covid-19.”