A new coronavirus jab could be manufactured within just 30 to 40 days if a variant of the virus is found to be less responsive to the vaccines available, according to a minister.
Nadhim Zahawi, vaccine development minister, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that measures have been put in place to produce the “next iteration” of jabs if needed.
The emergence of more infectious strains of Covid-19 in the UK and South Africa has raised concerns about the ability of the vaccines to continue to offer protection.
But Mr Zahawi stressed there is no evidence to suggest the vaccines currently being rolled out will not be effective against these two current variants.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there are concerns about a new strain of the virus identified in Brazil and the Government is “taking steps” to protect the UK.
Mr Zahawi told MPs: “We want to be able to rapidly… be able to produce the next iteration, manufacture it, and be ready for if the vaccine does mutate to a level where we do need the next iteration of a vaccine.”
Mr Zahawi said that as well as identifying the best candidates available, the UK’s vaccine taskforce had also made preparations in the event of the virus mutating.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that the current vaccines will not be effective against the current mutations that we have,” he told the committee.
“Scientists at Porton Down are looking at both the Kent variant – which has been so infectious – and the South African variant.
“We have to be ready for that what if question: what if there is a variant that the vaccines don’t work as well on?
“We have to be ready for that and… we can be ready within a period of sort of 30 to 40 days, we would have the next vaccine being manufactured.
“We’ve invested, not just in infrastructure, but in thinking through how we would do that.”
Mr Zahawi said the ability to do this at speed is because it would be a variation of a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine – such as the jab from Pfizer and BioNTech – so the approval process would be shortened.
He paid tribute to pharmaceutical company Pfizer, who he said was “engaging with us” to be ready to produce and manufacture iterations of the vaccine if needed.
Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said many questions remain about the coronavirus strain identified in Brazil, including whether it will be resistant to the vaccines available.
“We are concerned about the new Brazilian variant,” he told MPs.
“We already have tough measures… to protect this country from new infections coming in from abroad.
“We are taking steps to do that in respect of the Brazilian variant.”