Booster shots are likely in the UK this fall to combat coronavirus variants — a sign vaccines may become an annual affair

  • Existing coronavirus vaccines may be less effective against the variant first found in South Africa.
  • Vaccine developers are working on updated shots to combat such variants.
  • The UK will probably distribute booster shots in the fall, then roll out new COVID-19 vaccines annually. 
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COVID-19 booster shots are likely coming to the UK this fall. 

Given the evidence that the B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa can partially evade antibodies generated by existing vaccines, UK officials and vaccine developers are working to update vaccines to combat mutated strains.

Sarah Gilbert, a University of Oxford vaccinologist who helped design the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, told the BBC’s Andy Marr Show that a version of that vaccine aimed at tackling B.1.351 “looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”

After that, it’s probable that coronavirus vaccines will become a yearly shot like the one for flu, according to Nadhim Zahawi, who is leading the UK’s vaccine rollout.

More than 12 million of the UK’s 66 million residents have been received at least their first vaccine doses. Zahawi’s plan would require vaccinated people to return to clinics for another jab in late 2021.

‘Very much like working on a flu vaccine’

Zahawi said an annual COVID-19 vaccine would get tweaked each year to combat new strains that pop up.

“You look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, rapidly produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation,” he told the Andy Marr Show Sunday.

This annual process is already in use for flu shots, since that virus mutates quickly (which is also why flu shots aren’t 100% effective). Typically, the coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 — mutates at half the speed of the flu. But the more opportunity the coronavirus has to spread, the more chances it has to mutate into a potentially worrisome variant.

Zahawi told the UK House of Commons last week that a vaccine tailored to a new variant could be ready in “30 to 40 days,” then mass produced.

Gilbert said her team hopes to streamline the UK approval process for new versions of coronavirus vaccines, potentially reducing the need for as many clinical trials.

“It will be very much like working on a flu vaccine,” she said, noting the established regulatory procedures in place for updating flu shots every year.

Manufacturers need to be ready to update vaccines

The World Health Organization said in a statement on Monday that vaccine makers must be prepared to adjust to the virus’ evolution, “including potentially providing future booster shots and adapted vaccines.”

“We must do everything possible to reduce the circulation of the virus, prevent infections, and reduce the opportunities for the SARS-CoV-2 to evolve, resulting in mutations that may reduce the efficacy of existing vaccines,” the WHO said.

Pfizer and Moderna have both said that their own lab research suggests their vaccines work against B.1.351. Still, when Moderna exposed blood samples taken from vaccinated people to the B.1.351 variant, its researchers found they developed six times fewer virus-neutralizing antibodies than samples exposed to other variants.

So Moderna is planning clinical trials to test whether giving people a follow-up booster shot of its current two-dose vaccine will improve antibody responses. The company is also testing out a booster shot tailor-made to protect people against the B.1.351 strain.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, too, announced in January that his company is working on boosters to combat coronavirus variants.

BioNTech, Pfizer’s partner, said last month it could produce a new vaccine for a COVID-19 variant in about six weeks. 

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