Oxford researcher confident Covid vaccines can be adapted to protect against future virus strains


Sir John Bell, a professor at Oxford University in the U.K., told CNBC on Wednesday he was confident that Covid-19 vaccines could be retooled to provide effective protection against future coronavirus mutations.

Bell’s comments on “Closing Bell” come as global attention focuses on a strain of the virus widely circulating in the U.K. that may spread more easily than previous variants. It has since been detected in Colorado and California.

“This is going to be a game of cat and mouse now,” said Bell, who helped oversee Oxford’s vaccine development in partnership with AstraZeneca. The U.K. government granted that vaccine emergency use authorization Wednesday, after it had issued limited clearance to Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine earlier this month.

“If we have to make new vaccines, we can make them now that we’ve done the initial work. I’m sure our friends with the RNA vaccines can do the same,” Bell said. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger RNA technology, a new approach that uses genetic material to provoke an immune response. Oxford-AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine uses a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.

“We’re ready if we need to make another vaccine to approach it,” Bell added. He also noted that the development process to update vaccines will likely not require the same large-scale clinical trials conducted this year, only immunogenicity studies to make sure it sparks an immune response.

It is not uncommon for viruses to mutate, according to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who serves on Pfizer’s board of directors. “Some viruses like flu evolve their surface proteins very quickly, and that’s why we need a different flu vaccine every season,” he told CNBC earlier this month.

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