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AstraZeneca races to adapt Covid vaccine as South Africa suspends rollout

Drugmaker AstraZeneca is racing to adapt its Covid-19 vaccine in the face of new variants of the virus, with the process becoming more urgent after a small-scale study found that it was less effective at protecting against the more virulent strain discovered in South Africa. The country said it would suspend the use of the shot in its vaccination program after a study, published Sunday and not yet peer-reviewed, found that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild to moderate disease caused by the South African variant.

Researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and others in South Africa, and the University of Oxford, noted that the study was small, involving only around 2,000 volunteers who had an average age of 31. Oxford University said “protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalization or death could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk.”

Vaccine makers had already started developing second-generation Covid vaccines aimed at targeting new variants of the virus, and experts say it shouldn’t be too tricky to tweak existing vaccines to cover mutations, and could be adapted in a matter of six weeks. Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, which developed the vaccine with AstraZeneca, commented on Sunday that “efforts are underway to develop a new generation of vaccines that will allow protection to be redirected to emerging variants as booster jabs, if it turns out that it is necessary to do so.”

On Friday, Oxford University released details of a separate study that showed its vaccine was effective against a variant of the virus that was first discovered in southeast England, and one that has now become the dominant strain in the U.K.

Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity, and chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial, said data from the trials of its vaccine in the U.K. “indicate that the vaccine not only protects against the original pandemic virus, but also protects against the novel variant, B.1.1.7, which caused the surge in disease from the end of 2020 across the UK.”

AstraZeneca races to adapt Covid vaccine as South Africa suspends rollout, CNBC, Feb 8

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