Scientists at the university are currently assessing the ability of their vaccine to provide protection against the British and South African variants which were detected late last year, with the results of this analysis set to be released within the first half of next month.
The team behind the Oxford vaccine is preparing to design new versions of its jab in response to the different coronavirus variants that have emerged in the UK and elsewhere, The Independent understands.
However, the Oxford team is adopting an “at-risk” approach and intends to begin synthesising new versions of the vaccine without waiting to find out if they will be needed, with professor Sarah Gilbert – one of the lead scientists – “actively working on this”.
This comes as prime minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will be able to approve modified vaccines as quickly as required in the face of new and emerging coronavirus variants.
Scientists at Oxford are understood to be confident that their vaccine will not need to be adapted in response to the British variant, known as B117.
Data published by Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday also indicated that their vaccine is likely to provide protection against B117. Analysis is ongoing to determine whether it will be able to neutralise the South African and Brazilian variants.
If modifications to the Oxford vaccine are required, it will take “one day’s worth of work” to make the necessary adjustments before being grown in cell culture within a laboratory.
After that, Oxford’s pharmaceutical partner, AstraZeneca, would be required to once again step in and begin producing new supplies of the modified vaccine before distributing it across the world – a process that would probably take months.
A spokesperson for Oxford University told The Independent: “It is known that viruses constantly change through mutation, leading to the emergence of new variants, and we should expect many new variants to be identified during 2021.
“These changes are being monitored closely by scientists, and it’s important we continue to remain vigilant for changes in the future.
“The University of Oxford is carefully assessing the impact of new variants on vaccine immunity and evaluating the processes needed for rapid development of adjusted Covid-19 vaccines if these should be necessary.”
The government has meanwhile said it is developing a new rapid pathway to allow the approval of modified vaccines that may be required in the near future.
“We’ve been talking about that with the scientists over the last days and weeks intensively, just in the last few hours,” Mr Johnson said on Wednesday.
“We’re confident that the MHRA will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines, as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus.”
The Independent also understands that additional findings on the vaccine’s efficacy within the elderly will be released next month, along with further data to support the MHRA’s decision to delay the administration of a second dose as part of efforts to stretch current supplies.
After an intense run-up to the vaccine’s approval in December – and due to the mounting concerns surrounding the coronavirus variants – Oxford’s leading scientists have now returned to the laboratory and been given time away from media responsibilities.
Experts have warned that uncertainty surrounding the new variants and the prospect of reinfection reaffirms the need for more effective suppression of the virus, rather than relying solely on vaccination.
The South African variant, named 501Y.V2, has sparked particular concern among experts after research showed it may be able to evade parts of the immune response triggered by natural infection.
“This is the argument for you can’t just vaccinate you way out of the pandemic,” professor Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, told The Independent.
“You have to maintain suppression and everything else, or you’ll end up chasing the different variants with different vaccines – and the virus is always going to win that arms race, always.”