LONDON: As more countries took steps to bar the entry of a new coronavirus variant, the head of drugmaker AstraZeneca, which is developing a vaccine widely expected to be approved by United Kingdom authorities this week, on Sunday (Monday in Manila) said researchers believed the shot would be effective against a new variant of the virus driving a rapid surge in infections in Britain.
AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said researchers developing its vaccine had figured out a “winning formula” making the jab as effective as rival candidates.
Some have raised concern that the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being developed with Oxford University, may not be as good as the one made by Pfizer already being distributed in the UK and other countries. Partial results suggest that the AstraZeneca shot is about 70-percent effective for preventing illness from coronavirus infection, compared to the 95-percent efficacy reported by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.
“We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else,” Soriot said. “I can’t tell you more because we will publish at some point.”
Britain said its medicines regulator was reviewing the final data from AstraZeneca’s phase three clinical trials.
Asked about the vaccine’s efficacy against the new variant of coronavirus spreading in the UK, Soriot said: “So far, we think the vaccine should remain effective. But we can’t be sure, so we’re going to test that.”
British authorities have blamed the new virus variant for soaring infection rates across the country. They said the variant is much more transmittable, but stress there is no evidence it makes people more ill.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson sounded an urgent alarm about the variant days before Christmas, saying the new version of the virus was spreading rapidly and that plans to travel and gather must be canceled for millions to curb the spread of the virus.
Authorities have since put increasing areas of the country — affecting about 24 million people or 43 percent of the population — in the strictest level of restrictions. Nonessential shops have closed, restaurants and pubs can only operate for takeout and no indoor socializing is allowed.
Many countries swiftly barred travel from the UK, but cases of the new variant have since also been reported in a dozen locations around the world.
Sweden, Spain and South Korea confirmed to have detected the first cases of a new strain of the deadly coronavirus.
More than 40 countries, including Turkey and those from Europe, have suspended air traffic with the UK after the new strain of the virus was discovered.
The newly discovered variant is reported to be spreading 70 percent faster.
The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than 1.75 million lives in 191 countries and regions since last December.
Over 80 million cases have been worldwide, with more than 45.2 million recoveries, according to figures compiled by the United States Johns Hopkins University.
Britain recorded another 30,501 Covid-19 cases and a further 316 deaths on Sunday, bringing the country’s total death toll to 70,752. Many hospitals are under pressure, including the largest hospital in Wales, which issued an urgent appeal on Saturday for health care staff or medical students to help care for coronavirus patients in intensive care.
Worst yet to come
US health officials said that the new strain must be taken “very seriously.”
Top US government scientist Anthony Fauci endorsed the decision of US officials to require negative Covid-19 tests before letting people from Britain enter the US. He declined to weigh in on whether that step should have been taken sooner. He said the variant strain is something “to follow very carefully” and “we’re looking at it very intensively now.”
“Does it make someone more ill? Is it more serious virus in the sense of virulence? And the answer is, it doesn’t appear to be that way,” he said.
British officials are telling their US colleagues it appears that the vaccines being rolled out will be strong enough to deal with the new variant but, Fauci said, “we’re going to be doing the studies ourselves.”
He said the US is at a critical phase of the pandemic, with the worst probably still ahead.
He predicted the general population would be getting immunized widely by late March or early April — beyond the front-line workers, older people and certain other segments of the public given priority for the vaccines.
Fauci warned the worst of the pandemic may yet to come, driving the country to a “critical point” as holiday travel spreads the coronavirus.
“I share the concern of President-elect [Joe] Biden that as we get into the next few weeks, it might actually get worse,” the infectious disease specialist told CNN.
Biden cautioned on Wednesday that the nation’s “darkest days are ahead of us — not behind us.”
Fauci, who has been encouraging everyone eligible to be vaccinated, revealed he felt fine after receiving a first shot and experienced “nothing serious at all.”
With intensive care units in many hospitals near capacity, Fauci reiterated that the country might be facing a “surge upon a surge.”
AFP AND ANADOLUS