The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has announced that new state-of-the-art labs will test the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines against new variants.

While there is promising evidence that existing vaccines are effective against new variants of Covid-19, the government wants to ensure that we have a robust programme to test current and potential future variants of concern.

For this reason, they have invested £29.3 million through the Vaccines Taskforce in Public Health England’s new testing facilities at Porton Down.

The funding will increase the site’s ability to test blood samples which measure the levels of antibodies to Covid-19 that are generated by vaccines. The current capacity will be increased from 700 to 3,000 blood samples a week, which will accelerate the pace and scale of specialised testing.

The government hopes the labs will fast-track variant vaccines

The expert scientists at the Porton Down facility will work with existing and new vaccine suppliers in order to design vaccines targeted at variants of concern.

The government hopes this will fast-track variant vaccines, allowing the UK to stay a step ahead of the virus and be in the best possible position to respond to new threats from Covid-19.

Minister for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment Nadhim Zahawi said: “Our vaccination programme has so far saved thousands of lives, but it’s vital we put in place robust support for the programme for the future.

“This funding will allow us to increase the testing capacity at Porton Down with a new innovative facility and ensure our Covid-19 vaccines are effective against any future variants of concern. The UK remains at the forefront of vaccine research and development, and today’s announcement will further cement us as a global frontrunner in our future response to Covid-19.”

 “A new variant that can escape the current vaccines is the greatest risk of a third wave”

Although this is welcome news for the UK, the announcement is bound to cause further controversy. Despite the widespread support for a temporary waiver of Intellectual Property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, G7 governments (specifically the US, UK, Japan, Canada and the EU) have continued to support pharmaceutical monopolies on Covid-19 vaccinations

In fact, so far all the pharmaceutical companies that have successfully manufactured a vaccine have refused to share the technology and formula with the rest of the world. This has caused public outrage across the globe, particularly as India’s death toll continues to rise rapidly.  

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: “A new variant that can escape the current vaccines is the greatest risk of a third wave. This new investment will help us stay one step ahead of the virus by doubling our capacity to test vaccine effectiveness against emerging variants.

“While we expect the existing vaccines to offer protection against new variants, particularly preventing serious illness and death, it is important that we continue to monitor the picture as it develops. The best way to prevent the spread of variants is the same as always – follow public health advice and remember hands, face, space.”