UK targets COVID-19 variants with new order for CureVac jab

The UK has agreed a 50 million-dose order for a COVID-19 vaccine with German biotech CureVac to support development of a shot that specifically targets emerging variants of the virus.

The agreement will see the UK work with CureVac to develop “new varieties of vaccines based on messenger RNA technology to be developed quickly against new strains of COVID-19,” said the government.

New UK, South African and Brazilian strains of COVID-19 have been ringing alarm bells because they are more likely to be transmitted than the original, although there’s no solid data yet to suggest that they are more likely to cause severe disease.

The current Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines seem to protect against the variants currently dominant in the UK, according to the government, but as a precaution the aim of the new partnership is to use UK expertise on virus DNA sequencing to allow new mRNA shots to be developed quickly.

An expert advisory group will be set up to identify the variants that could pose a threat to the UK population, with the doses expected to be ready later this year if they are needed.

On Friday, AZ said its vaccine offered people good protection against the UK variant, but a new study has shown it is less effective against the South African variant, according to the Financial Times.

AZ has said it is confident that it could quickly update its vaccine and have a new version ready for the autumn, but in the meantime South Africa has paused the rollout of the shot among healthcare workers.

Targeted testing for the South African strain – which includes a mutation known as E484K that seems to help it evade immunity from vaccines and earlier coronavirus infection – is now underway in various parts of the UK.

Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said it is “likely that our vaccines will have to adapt to continue to offer the best possible protection.”

He added: “Being able to create these new vaccines at speed will allow our scientists to keep ahead of the virus as they do every year with the influenza vaccine.”

CureVac’s first-generation COVID-19 vaccine CVnCoV is in phase 2b/3 testing with results expected in the coming weeks, and last week the biotech teamed up with UK drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline in a €150 million alliance to develop a candidate that would target multiple new variants in a single jab.

It also has a partnership in place with Germany’s Bayer to produce several hundred million doses of the shot, and is also relying on contract manufacturers Wacker and Fareva to produce supplies.

The UK deal also includes a provision for setting manufacturing of the vaccines within the UK, which the government said would strengthen domestic capabilities.

Production capacity was at the heart of a row that erupted between the EU and AZ over supplies of the company’s vaccine a couple of weeks ago, with the European Commission slamming the company for not delivering as many shots as contracted.

The 50 million dose order comes on top of 407 million doses already booked in by the UK from AZ, Pfizer/BioNTech, Valneva, GSK, Novavax, Janssen and Moderna. So far only the Pfizer/BioNTech and AZ vaccines are being given to the public.

Shortly after the announcement of the CureVac partnership, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a new UK target of vaccinating 15 million people by 15 February, and all over-50s in the UK by May.

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