First wave of COVID vaccines ‘unlikely to end pandemic’

The first wave of COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to end the pandemic, the UK vaccines chief has told Sky News.

The UK has 340 million doses of six prototype vaccines in its stockpile – more than any other country.

But Kate Bingham, who heads the Vaccine Taskforce, said uncertainties remain over how much protection they give and for how long. Further candidates, including some in early development, will still be needed.

“We are not done,” she said in an exclusive interview.

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1,077 healthy adults in the Oxford vaccine study showed a strong antibody and T-cell immune responses
Image: Two vaccines are expected to release data from key phase 3 clinical trials within weeks

“The reason we’ve gone for a range of vaccines is to maximise our chances that we will have at least one successful vaccine that works in the population who are most vulnerable.

“We are always looking for additional vaccines for delivery at different times or with a different immune profile.”

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Two vaccines, made by Oxford University/AstraZeneca and BioNTech/Pfizer, are expected to release data from key phase 3 clinical trials within weeks.

They should show whether the vaccines stop the virus spreading or just alleviate symptoms.

But Ms Bingham said even a vaccine that reduces the severity of disease in vulnerable patients would still be worthwhile.

“A partially effective vaccine is better than no vaccine at all,” she continued.

“Flu vaccines are 50% effective, but they are widely used and have a big impact on reducing the clinical impacts of flu in the population.”

Ms Bingham has joined a trial of the Novavax vaccine at the Royal Free Hospital in London. She does not know whether it was the active vaccine or a saline dummy.

More than 270,000 people have so far signed up to the Vaccine Research Registry in the hope of joining trials. More volunteers from ethnic minorities are needed to test vaccines in a diverse population.

Kate Bingham thinks a partially effective vaccine is better than no vaccine at all
Image: Kate Bingham thinks a partially effective vaccine is better than no vaccine at all

Ms Bingham said the prolonged pause of a US trial of the Oxford vaccine, due to a possible adverse event, should not delay a decision by UK regulators on whether it was safe and effective to roll out on this side of the Atlantic. Trials in the UK and Brazil have already been cleared to continue.

She said she understood the desperation for a vaccine, particularly with the prospect of long local lockdowns over winter.

“The comfort I can give, is we have four of our six vaccines now in phase 3 efficacy clinical trials, so we have vaccines that have progressed rapidly into that final stage of efficacy testing,” she said.

“We haven’t seen any serious safety signals that have stopped these vaccines completely. There will of course be safety issues, but these are carefully monitored.”

Professor Jonathan Ball, a vaccine expert at Nottingham University, said everything rides on good results from the phase 3 trials. Antibody levels fall quickly after real COVID infection. If the same happens with a vaccine it may only protect for a month or two.

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“At the moment we have no protection against COVID-19 at all – and for elderly people, particularly those with diseases like obesity and diabetes, this is a serious illness.

“So if we can give hope to people, that’s important, but it can’t be false hope.

“We have to be assured that those vaccines do what we intend.”

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