A new vaccine to deal with a dangerous coronavirus variant could be developed in “30 to 40 days” the vaccines minister told MPs, as he said there were roughly 4,000 new strains of the virus worldwide.
Nadhim Zahawi told the Commons the emergency action would only be necessary if there was “a variant that we are really concerned about” in response to a question from the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Hunt had asked how the government and scientists would respond in a “worst-case scenario, which is that we see a variant that is wholly immune to the vaccines that we are currently distributing”.
Zahawi said the plan was “to go from the moment we can sequence a variant that we are really concerned about to the moment we can have a vaccine ready to be between 30 to 40 days”. It would then have to be manufactured in volume, he said.
He added that an alternative approach might be to rely on the Valneva vaccine, currently in early trials, to act as “a booster in the autumn” because it uses a different technique thought to be more likely to be effective against mutations.
The Valneva vaccine, however, would have to be approved by regulators and its effectiveness tested with people who have already had doses of other vaccines before it could be safely deployed.
A further 378,794 people received first doses of a vaccine in England on Wednesday, plus 45,085 in Scotland and 28,073 in Wales, taking the total to 10.47m before figures for Northern Ireland were available.
The UK passed 10m first dose vaccinations on Tuesday, two-thirds of the way to completing the first four priority groups in time for the target of mid-February.
In earlier interviews, Zahawi said the government was creating a library of Covid-19 variants so it was better prepared to update vaccines as needed.
“We have the largest genome sequencing industry – we have about 50% of the world’s genome sequencing industry – and we are keeping a library of all the variants so that we are ready to be able to respond, whether in the autumn or beyond, to any challenge the virus may present, and produce the next vaccine so we can always protect the United Kingdom and of course the rest of the world as well.”
All manufacturers including Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca were looking at how they could improve their vaccines to be ready for any variant, he said.
Zahawi brushed away a call from the shadow health minister, Alex Norris, to have key workers vaccinated after the first four priority groups are completed alongside groups five to nine, which include those aged 50 to 70.
“I certainly think it’d be wrong to change the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] recommendation because that one to nine is 99% of mortality,” he told MPs.
A debate about how to prioritise key workers could come when phase two of the vaccination programme, covering adults in good health aged 18 to 49, was being considered, he added.
When pushed on when all first nine groups in the priority list would have received a vaccine, Zahawi said earlier people that could “do the maths”. At current rates, everyone in groups one to nine would be offered a first jab by early April.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We will set out our target [for vaccinating groups five to nine] after we have hit our 15 February target.”
Asked whether it would take another 35 days from 15 February to have given first doses all 31 million people in the first nine cohorts, he replied: “That assumes the supply, so I don’t want to commit to a date without going through it with a very fine-tooth comb with the whole team, because our limiting factor is the supply of vaccines ultimately.”