Restrictions on large gatherings likely to be in place ‘for next few years’ 

Prof Sarah Gilbert told the BBC that a version of the Oxford vaccine that applies specifically to the South Africa variant is “in the works”, but is not quite ready to be used in people yet.

“But as all the developers are using platform technologies, these are very quick to adapt. So last year, all of us took our platform technology – whether an adenovirus vaccine or an mRNA vaccine – and we slotted in the genes of the spike protein which was common at that time. 

“This year we’re doing the same again. It’s easy to adapt the technology and develop a new vaccine which will have to go through a small amount of clinical testing – not nearly the same amount as we had to go through last year.

“This year we expect to show that the new version of the vaccine can develop antibodies against the new variant. Then it will be very much like making a new flu vaccine… there are regulatory procedures well established to do that, which is called a strain change, and vaccine developers know how to go through that process.”

Asked whether new vaccine may be approved and manufactured by the autumn, Prof Gilbert added that “yes, it is looking likely that it will be ready by the autumn.”

“We’re already looking at the first part of the manufacturing process in Oxford, that will be passed on to other members of the manufacturing supply chain as we go through Spring. And it looks very likely that we will have a new version ready to use by autumn.”

Does that mean we can expect a big vaccine booster campaign in Autumn? Prof Gilbert said we’re waiting for data to confirm whether this is necessary – but preparation is essential.

“We’ll be ready if we need to use [different versions]”, she added.