South Africa has suspended its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to healthcare staff, following results from a study which suggested that it was not effective against mild illness caused by the South African variant of Covid-19.

The country had received its first one million doses of the vaccine at the end of January, with plans to roll it out to frontline health workers from the middle of February.

These plans have now been suspended as preliminary research suggested that the vaccine offers only minimal protection against mild to moderate disease from the variant.

A study of around 2,000 people has shown the jab only offers minimal protection against mild disease of the South Africa variant and, due to the young age of participants, could not conclude whether the jab worked against severe disease.

So what does this mean for the UK’s vaccine rollout and hopes of coming out of lockdown?

Royal Borough Observer: Oxford vaccine. (PA)Oxford vaccine. (PA)

‘Still effective in preventing severe disease’

Ministers in the UK have moved to reassure the public over the effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca  vaccine as experts warned it was “very possible” the South African variant is already quite widespread in the UK.

Over the weekend, it was reported that early data suggested that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab only offered limited protection against the variant which has health chiefs concerned.

Health minister Edward Argar said on Monday that Oxford researchers remained confident their vaccine could prevent severe disease for those affected by the variant and that booster jabs to tackle new strains are already in the pipeline.

Mr Argar said Professor Sarah Gilbert, from Oxford, who designed the Covid vaccine, had said “there wasn’t anything she could point to that caused her to be concerned that it would not be effective against severe forms of the illness, hospitalisation and death from the virus”.

He told BBC Breakfast that dealing with severe disease and people needing to go to hospital was “the key thing we are seeking to tackle here at this point”.

Mr Argar said booster jabs were already being developed to tackle variants, telling Sky News: “What we would all expect is every year we have our flu jabs, it would not be unreasonable to suggest something similar here.”

The minister said the virus “will always try to outwit us”, adding: “We’ve just got to make sure we get ahead of the game and we outwit it.”

Royal Borough Observer: Ministers have sought to reassure the public over the effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. (PA)Ministers have sought to reassure the public over the effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. (PA)

Why might people need a third vaccine?

Millions of people may need a third vaccine jab in the autumn amid the threat of new variants of the virus spreading across the UK.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was forced to defend the vaccine after a new study in South Africa found it was not effective at preventing mild illness caused by the more infectious mutation.

Mr Zahawi urged the public to keep faith with the Oxford jab as scientists working on the vaccine raised the prospect of having a booster dose available by the autumn.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the minister said: “While it is right and necessary to prepare for the deployment of an updated vaccine, we can take confidence from the current roll out and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease.

“We need to be aware that even where a vaccine has reduced efficacy in preventing infection there may still be good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death. This is vitally important for protecting the healthcare system.”

Scientists agreed more research is required into the level of protection the Oxford vaccine affords against the South African variant but some expressed concern over the preliminary findings in South Africa.

AstraZeneca said on Sunday the fact the study into the E484K mutation involved 2,000 people who were mostly young and healthy meant it had “not been able to properly ascertain” whether it prevented against severe illness and hospital admission.

Could this effect the UK's lockdown plans?

The Prime Minister and his advisors are already adopting a careful approach to the lifting of lockdown and so this development will not change that.

Boris Johnson has said March 8 was the “prudent” date for the reopening of schools in England, suggesting it could also be a date for the easing of lockdown.

And Professor Chris Whitty suggested pressure on the NHS would lift once all over 50s had been offered vaccinations – suggesting that lockdown is likely to last until then.

Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told Times Radio the news from Oxford was a step back, but added: “I think we can still win; it’s just got so much tougher again.”

He said: “I think the number of variants that can come out of this spike antigen is finite, and we’re not going to be playing this catch-up game forever.

“There is an end in sight and there is tweaking to be done, but I think we’ll get there.

“The sort of biggest worry is that it’s not just about South Africa, is it, it’s about our homegrown versions, and the modification to the Kent variant, and the idea that we’ve got to be so on our guard and track and tracing it so carefully that we don’t expand our homegrown version.”

Royal Borough Observer: Covid-19 case rates in UK nations. (PA Graphics)Covid-19 case rates in UK nations. (PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, argued that the virus will “bounce back” if restrictions are lifted too early.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I think (NHS) trust leaders are really clear that we need to be careful about relaxing the restrictions too quickly, because we made that mistake last year and look what happened in the north after the summer – the virus has bounced straight back.

“We’ve all worked incredibly hard over the last nine months as a nation – and over the last few months, last few weeks in terms of this immediate set of restrictions.

“What we mustn’t do is rush to lift them, and then find the virus bounces straight back.”

Mr Jonson confirmed last week that the Government will reveal a “route map” for getting the country out of lockdown on February 22 but stressed the easing of restrictions are still some way off despite positive news regarding the vaccine rollout.