Covid: UK first country to approve dual-strain vaccine

The UK has become the first country to approve a dual vaccine which tackles both the original Covid virus and the newer Omicron variant.

The upgraded vaccine should be available as an autumn booster and give better protection against variants.

Moderna said it could supply doses in the next few weeks, but exactly who will get them has yet to be announced.

All over-50s and people in high-risk groups will be offered some form of booster from next month.

Cases of coronavirus are currently falling in the UK, in mid-to-late July, around 2.5 million people tested positive for coronavirus.

The original vaccines used in the pandemic were designed to train the body to fight the first form of the virus that emerged in Wuhan, in China, at the end of 2019.

The Covid virus has since mutated substantially, with a stream of new variants emerging that can dodge some of our immune defences. They have caused large surges in cases around the world.

‘Sharpened tool’

Moderna’s vaccine targets both the original strain and the first Omicron variant (BA.1), which emerged last winter. It is known as a bivalent vaccine as it takes aim at two forms of Covid.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has considered the evidence and given the vaccine approval for use in adults.

Dr June Raine, the regulator’s chief executive, said: « The first generation of Covid-19 vaccines being used in the UK continue to provide important protection against the disease and save lives.

« What this bivalent vaccine gives us is a sharpened tool in our armoury to help protect us against this disease as the virus continues to evolve. »

The results of experiments on 437 people showed the updated vaccine was safe and gave better immune protection against newer variants.

Levels of antibodies that were able to stick to and disable Omicron (BA.1) were 1.7 times higher in people given the new vaccine. Tests against more recent Omicron variants (BA.4 and BA.5), which are causing the UK’s current wave, also showed higher levels of protection with the updated vaccine.

However, it is far from clear what that means in terms of preventing you becoming seriously ill. And it is uncertain what variants we will be facing in the coming months and exactly how well the updated vaccine will perform against them.

Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive officer of Moderna, said he was « delighted » the vaccine had been approved.

He said: « This represents the first authorization of an Omicron-containing bivalent vaccine, this bivalent vaccine has an important role to play in protecting people in the UK from Covid-19 as we enter the winter months. »

In the UK, the following people will be offered some form of booster:

  • health and social care staff
  • everyone aged 50 and over
  • carers who are over the age of 16
  • people over five whose health puts them at greater risk, this includes pregnant women
  • people over five who share a house with somebody with a weakened immune system

Around 26 million people will be eligible for an autumn booster, Moderna says it will be able to supply 13 million doses by the end of the year.

Originally those aged 50-65 were not going to be jabbed. However, the immunisation campaign has been expanded because of the fast spread of variants, uncertainty about how the virus will mutate and the expectation that we will be more social and give virus a helping hand this winter – including at Christmas.

However, most people under 50 will not be boosted this winter. The focus is preventing those most at risk from becoming seriously ill rather than stopping the young passing the virus on to older relatives.

Moderna is not the only company updating its vaccines. Pfizer has also been developing vaccines that can target Omicron, however, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is not.

By By James Gallagher – BBC News

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