The company behind the Covid-19 vaccine being given to people in the UK says it is “highly likely” the vaccine will protect people against the new variant of the virus.
But if necessary, the vaccine could be re-engineered in a matter of weeks, BioNTech’s boss said.
UK scientists discovered the variant after analysing a sharp rise in cases in the south-east of England.
They say it could spread up to 70% more quickly than other forms of the virus.
The new variant is thought to be present in many parts of the UK but is particularly concentrated in cases in Kent, Essex and London.
This is where the fastest rise in cases is being detected, with some areas seeing cases double in the past week.
The daily figures released by the government showed 36,804 cases reported in the UK – a record since mass testing began in the summer. Some 691 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were also recorded.
The new variant has also been found in Denmark, the Netherlands and South Africa – countries which, like the UK, are experienced at carrying out genome sequencing – and is likely to be present in many more.
Called VOC-202012/01, the variant contains 23 mutations – an unusually large number all at once – which can cause it to behave differently, although it’s unclear yet exactly how.
There are no signs the new variant causes more a more severe form of Covid-19 and no evidence it spreads more easily in children, although this is something being investigated.
BioNTech, in partnership with drug firm Pfizer, developed the first vaccine against Covid-19 to be approved by an internationally recognised regulatory body – the UK’s, in early December.
More than 500,000 people in the UK have now been given their first dose of the vaccine.
The vaccine has also been approved by the US regulator, the FDA, and the European Medicines Agency for use in the EU.
At a news conference in Germany, Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, said “scientifically, it is highly likely that [the] immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant”.
And he added that the company had the technology to refine its vaccine very quickly if it needed to.
“The beauty of the Messenger RNA technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation – we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks, so that means a vaccine which contains this information,” Mr Sahin said.
He confirmed that he didn’t know “at the moment” if their vaccine was able to provide protection against this new variant.
Genomics experts from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) which discovered the new variant after examining a cluster of cases in Kent, also say it should not affect how well the Covid vaccine works.
They believe that antibodies, which build up in the body to defend it against future infections, will still target the virus despite some mutations affecting its infamous spike protein.
But they warned the virus may develop more mutations in the future