Sir John Bell, a professor at Oxford University in the UK, told CNBC on Wednesday that he was confident that Covid-19 vaccines could be upgraded to provide effective protection against future coronavirus mutations.
Bell’s comments on “Closing Bell” come as global attention is focused on a strain of the virus that is widespread in the UK and that may spread more easily than previous variants. It has since been discovered in Colorado and California.
“This is going to be a game of cat and mouse,” said Bell, who worked with AstraZeneca to oversee vaccine development at Oxford. The UK government approved emergency vaccine use on Wednesday after granting limited approval for Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine earlier this month.
Studies are currently underway to officially determine whether Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine will protect against the new strain of the virus, Bell said. “We think they probably can, but we just want to be absolutely sure.”
“Given the level of disease in the UK with the new variant … we will have many examples of people who have had the vaccine and are exposed to the virus and we will be able to report fairly quickly on whether the vaccine actually protects against this strain,” added Bell added.
In addition to the coronavirus variant found in Great Britain, a separate strain has come into focus, which was first found in South Africa. Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it may also be floating around in America.
Bell told CNBC that he believes the variant discovered in South Africa has mutations that make it “a little more worrying” than the UK’s predominant strain. Still, Bell expressed confidence in how scientists will deal with virus mutations that escape the protection of existing vaccines.
“If we need to make new vaccines, now that we’ve done the first work, we can make them. I’m sure our friends can do the same with the RNA vaccines,” said Bell. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger RNA technology, a new approach that uses genetic material to trigger an immune response. Oxford-AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine uses a weakened version of a cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.
“We are ready if we need to make another vaccine to get closer,” added Bell. He also noted that the vaccine update development process is unlikely to require the same large-scale clinical trials conducted this year, just immunogenicity studies to ensure that an immune response is elicited.
According to Dr. It is not uncommon for viruses to mutate, Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who serves on Pfizer’s Board of Directors. “Some viruses like the flu develop their surface proteins very quickly, so we need a different flu vaccine every season,” he told CNBC earlier this month.
Gottlieb said at the time that he also believed the vaccines in place will protect against the strain of virus transmitted in the UK, as the vaccines target the entire spike protein of the coronavirus.
“We are developing antibodies against many different regions of this protein. Even if part of this protein were mutated and some antibodies no longer recognized it, there would be antibodies against other parts of this protein,” he said. “That probably won’t bypass our vaccines that easily, but at some point we’ll have to update the vaccines.”
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC employee and a member of the boards of directors of Pfizer, the genetic testing startup Tempus, and the biotech company Illumina. Gottlieb is also co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean’s Healthy Sail Panel.