The British official in charge of the U.K.'s vaccination program has said there are already about 4,000 variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 circulating around the world, but that the vaccines being rolled out should hold up as effective weapons against the evolving pathogen. Vaccine Deployment Minister Nadhim Zahawi told Britain's Sky News it was "very unlikely" the vaccines wouldn't be effective against the new strains, "especially when it comes to severe illness and hospitalization."
That said, Zahawi made it clear that fizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and other manufacturers are already "looking at how they can improve their vaccine to make sure that we are ready for any variant — there are about 4,000 variants around the world of COVID now."
Scientists say there are no changes in how the vast majority of the mutated versions of the virus affect people or how easily they're transmitted. However, a few — including variants first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil — have been deemed more infectious.
Zahawi's remarks echoed comments made Wednesday by a chief scientist for AstraZenca, who said that work to update the vaccine it's making in partnership with Oxford University was being done "as rapidly as possible."
"We're working very hard and we're already talking about not just the variants that we have to make in laboratories, but also the clinical studies that we need to run" to get updated vaccines approved, Mene Pangalos said during a media briefing. "We're very much aiming to try and have something ready by the autumn, so this year."
Scientists in the U.K. have been working for months to detect and track mutated versions of the coronavirus, leading global efforts to genetically decode samples of COVID-19 taken from the community.
The scientist who heads the program in Britain, microbiologist Sharon Peacock of Cambridge University, told CBS News correspondent Roxana Saberi this week that it's "very likely" COVID-19 variants in the U.S. are more widespread than currently known, given the extremely low proportion of virus samples being sequenced in American labs.
"The virus, over time, is improving itself," Peacock told Saberi. For the coronavirus, "it's a matter of natural selection. It's the survival of the fittest."
But while the virus is evolving in ways that appear to make it more easily transmitted, possibly resistant — to some degree — to current vaccines, and perhaps even more dangerous, the research available thus far points to the current vaccine formulas offering some level of protection against them.
Pfizer released lab data last month that it said was evidence its vaccine, which is already being widely used in the U.S. and the U.K., should prevent symptomatic infection with the variant of the disease discovered late last year in southern England.
Moderna, maker of the other vaccine currently in use in the U.S., which uses the same biological method in the body as Pfizer's, said its research suggested the vaccine "should" work against both the U.K. strain, and the worrying one found in South Africa.
Zahawi's remarks to Sky News represented a backing of that confidence from the drug companies – albeit based on early laboratory work, not real-world data on vaccinations. The first data from real-world tracking of vaccination programs in places where the variants are prevalent is expected in the next couple weeks.
"We have about 50% of the world's genome sequencing industry," Zahawi told Sky News, "and we are keeping a library of all the variants so that we are ready to respond — whether in the autumn or beyond — to any challenge that the virus may present, and produce the next vaccine."