Don’t panic – Covid-19 injection will still keep you out of hospital even if you fall ill with South African variant, writes PROFESSOR HUGH PENNINGTON

A vaccine is not an impenetrable barrier in the body through which no virus can pass. It’s more like a superpower, which enables our immune systems to fight better, faster and stronger against an invader.

So the discovery that the Oxford-AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine for Covid-19 is less effective against some new variants of coronavirus than others is no cause for alarm. It’s to be expected.

Just like the heroes in a blockbuster movie, we’re simply going to have to adapt our new superpowers. 

News that the AZ jab has ‘limited efficacy’ against mild and moderate disease caused by the South African strain of the virus was treated yesterday in some quarters as a looming disaster.

Broadcaster and author Loyd Grossman receives the AstraZeneca vaccine at North Cotswold Hospital in Gloucestershire

It is not – and I say this not only as an academic with a lifetime’s experience in viruses and vaccines, but as an 82-year-old man who has had his first AZ injection.

This means I have a keen personal – as well as professional – interest in getting the facts straight.

Covid-19 attacks the body in two ways. It multiplies in the mouth, nose and throat, where it can exist without causing noticeable symptoms, yet spreads virulently. 

The microscopic viral particles are then breathed in and out on droplets of saliva and mucus.

It can also invade the rest of the body. In the most serious cases, it attacks the lungs, causing breathing difficulties that can be fatal. 

The discovery that the Oxford-AstraZeneca is less effective against some new variants of coronavirus than others is no cause for alarm, writes Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

It can also affect the heart and other vital organs including the kidneys. There is also mounting evidence to suggest it sometimes attacks the brain.

It is in cases such as these that patients often require hospital treatment, in turn driving the terrible fatality figures and threatening to overwhelm the NHS. And, crucially, it is these cases that the AZ vaccine prevents – even in its South African variant.

In order to wipe out Covid altogether, we need the vaccine to protect against mild and asymptomatic cases too because they are most likely to spread the illness.

Once these milder cases are prevented, the ‘R’ number will drop – that is, infection rates will plummet. 

Tweaking the vaccine code in the laboratory, to ensure it works against the South African variant, ought not to be a major problem. I would expect the revised formula to be engineered within a week or so.

Of course, a whole series of logistical challenges exists beyond that – we have to acquire official approval and ratification, manufacture millions of new doses, then get them bottled and distributed.

A team of medical staff treat a patient with coronavirus at King’s College Hospital in London

Pictured: A health worker prepares the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at the Mignot Hospital in Le Chesnay near Paris

When news of the vaccine first broke, I set a simple benchmark. To be deemed a success, the jabs had to be more effective against Covid than the annual flu vaccines have been. That sets a high standard.

In most years, flu jabs prevent infection at least 50 per cent of the time, even though the disease is constantly mutating.

Covid jabs have far outstripped that target. It may take the world years to eradicate Covid fully. 

But we must not allow a small and entirely predictable setback to rattle our faith that life will soon be returning far closer to normal.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University

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