Data from Oxford University showing its vaccine cuts transmission “will help us all to get out of this pandemic”, Matt Hancock has said, as hopes were raised over the lifting of lockdown.
The Health Secretary hailed the new analysis from Oxford University as “absolutely superb” after results showed the jab offers 76% protection up to three months after the first dose and could reduce transmission.
However, there is still concern that new variants of coronavirus – which reduce the effectiveness of vaccines – could slow things down.
Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: “We know from earlier trials that the vaccines are safe and effective at protecting the individual.
He told Times Radio the numbers of people in hospital was coming down and deaths would drop. Mr Hancock added the Oxford data suggested “we can have a high degree of confidence that that will come down quickly”.
Mr Hancock also said the data showing that delaying the second dose of the vaccine by up to 12 weeks could increase its efficacy “categorically” supported the Government’s strategy of stretching the time limit between doses.
“This Oxford report is very good news, it backs the strategy that we’ve taken and it shows the world that the Oxford vaccine works effectively,” he told Sky News.
Elsewhere, Professor Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), also praised the Oxford results, saying the finding on transmission was “very, very good news”.
He said he thought “it points to the fact that all of these vaccines to some extent will be able to reduce transmission”, but said there were still issues around new variants of coronavirus.
Asked if the new strains showed signs of being vaccine resistant, he told Times Radio: “Yes, they do and that’s something that I guess we’ve expected all along.
“So it is going to be a game of catch-up going forward – the vaccines will continue to work, but as the virus mutates they will work less well and we’ll have to adjust them to bring them back up to top-level protection.
“But that’s what we do with flu all the time. It’s not something that’s that alarming or unexpected really, but it is a reality.
“There isn’t a silver bullet, we’re not going to solve this problem overnight, it’s going to take time.”
He said scientists were confident that vaccines will have a good impact against that variant, but that others showing more worrying mutations “are going to be much more difficult to block from transmission”.
However, he told BBC Breakfast that vaccines in general should still protect against severe disease and could be adapted to mutant strains.
He said: “I think one of the things that we know about these new variants is that they are making changes that allow them to avoid human immune responses so that they can still transmit.
“So that does mean that it’s likely over time that the virus will find ways of adapting and continue to pass between people despite natural infection and immunity after that or from the vaccines.
“That doesn’t mean that we won’t still have protection against severe disease, because there’s lots of different ways in which our immune system fights the virus – it is much more about the virus being able to continue to survive, rather than for it to cause harm to us.
“If we do need to update the vaccines, then it is actually a relatively straightforward process it only takes a matter of months, rather than the huge efforts that everyone went through last year, to get the very large-scale trials run and read out.”
Regarding the people who were vaccinated in the Oxford trial but may still be able to transmit the virus, Prof Pollard added: “There’s two questions that need to be asked – one is, how much virus are they shedding? And the other is, for how long?
“We’re looking at that and we should have an answer to that really important question very soon.”
Mr Hancock also spoke about vaccine centres being open 24 hours a day, saying pilot studies showed that recipients and those giving the jabs preferred to work during the day.
“But we have discovered, perhaps to nobody’s surprise, that people tend to want to have the jab during the day, and those who are doing the vaccinations prefer to do it during the day, so, since what you need to do is you need a vaccinator and the vaccine and the person being vaccinated, getting those three together during the day is more convenient than overnight.
“So we have done 24-hour vaccinations. The rate-limiting factor is not the ability for the NHS to get this delivered, the rate-limiting factor is supply.
“We will do anything to make sure that the supply is delivered into people’s arms as fast as safely possible, including 24-hour supply.”
Eleven cases in the Bristol area have been identified as the variant that originally arose in Kent but are now showing the E484K mutation.
A cluster of 32 cases in Liverpool have the same mutation, but relate to the original strain of coronavirus that has been around since the start of the pandemic.
The South African variant – which also shows the mutation – is under investigation in at least eight postcode areas of England where cases not linked to travel have been found.
The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing people contracting Covid-19.
Elsewhere, new infection data from the Office for National Statistics shows around one in seven people in England would have tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies by mid-January, a rise on previous months.