Covid - Public can have confidence in UK's vaccines, Nadhim Zahawi says
The public can have confidence in the UK's Covid vaccines, despite concerns about the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab's effectiveness against the South Africa variant, the vaccines minister says.
Early trials suggest the jab offers "minimal protection" against mild disease from the South Africa variant.
But Nadhim Zahawi said the vaccines being used appeared to work well against dominant variants in the UK.
South Africa has put its rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on hold.
Its government is waiting for further advice on how best to proceed in light of the preliminary findings from a study suggesting the jab offered limited protection against mild and moderate disease from the variant first discovered in South Africa.
Scientists say the strain - also known as 501.V2 or B.1.351 - accounts for 90% of new coronavirus cases in the country.
Health minister Edward Argar told BBC Breakfast that 147 cases of the South Africa variant have been found in the UK which was "a very small number but it's still something we quite rightly have got to keep a very close eye on".
The version of the virus first discovered in Kent is the dominant strain.
Mr Zahawi said scientists were working on updated vaccines to offer further protection against new variants.
"While it is right and necessary to prepare for the deployment of an updated vaccine, we can take confidence from the current roll out and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease," he said.
He added that recent studies showed the vaccines currently being deployed in the UK "appear to work well" against the variants currently dominant in the country.
"We need to be aware that even where a vaccine has reduced efficacy in preventing infection there may still be good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death," he said.
Dr Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert who advises the government, told BBC Radio 4's today programme that "it's very possible" the South Africa variant could already be quite widespread in the UK.
The "surge testing" taking place in certain areas in England "really needs to be effective" to halt its spread, he said, but "sadly we may be in a similar situation to the Kent variant" which eventually spread across the whole country.
He added that there are "significant implications" if it is the case that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the South Africa variant as it may mean "more restrictions might be needed for longer".
Additional "surge" testing is taking place in small areas of England including parts of Surrey, Bristol, London, Kent, Hertfordshire, Walsall, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
Positive cases will be analysed to see if they are caused by the South African variant with results coming back in around seven to 10 days, according to the director of public health in Worcestershire, Dr Kathryn Cobain.
The new study of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, involved about 2,000 people who were on average 31 years old.
A spokesman for the pharmaceutical company said it had not yet been able to properly establish whether the jab would prevent severe disease and hospitalisation caused by the South Africa variant because those involved in the study had predominantly been young, healthy adults.
But the company expressed confidence the vaccine would offer protection against serious cases, because it created neutralising antibodies similar to those of other coronavirus vaccines.
Prof Sarah Gilbert, the vaccine's lead researcher, said a modified version of the jab designed to combat the South Africa variant was likely to be ready to use in the autumn.
On Saturday, AstraZeneca said its vaccine provided good protection against the Kent variant.
Early results suggest the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine protects against the new variants.
Data on two new coronavirus vaccines that could be approved soon - one from Novavax and another from Janssen - appear to offer some protection.
And early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is still effective against the South Africa variant.
It comes as:
• More than 12 million people in the UK have now had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with nearly 550,000 first jabs given out on Saturday
• The government says coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of their immigration status. They want people in the country illegally to know they will not be at risk of deportation if they come forward for a jab
• The government is aiming to offer first doses to 15 million people in the top four priority groups by 15 February. At the current rate, about 16 million people would receive a first jab by that date
• Meanwhile, the daily number of cases recorded in the UK continues to fall, but remains high, with another 15,845 new cases reported on Sunday
• The latest figures also showed another 373 people in the UK have died within 28 days of a positive test - although fewer deaths tend to be recorded over the weekend because of reporting delays.