Vaccine testing at Porton Down to be expanded under plans to ‘future-proof’ UK against Covid
The government is investing almost £30m in expanding laboratories that will assess the effectiveness of vaccines against emerging coronavirus variants.
Under plans to “future-proof” the UK against more infectious or immune-escaping forms of the virus, testing is to be increased at the Porton Down labs in Wiltshire, enabling scientists elsewhere to fast-track the development of new and existing vaccines.
The top-secret facilities measure the levels of antibodies within vaccinated or naturally infected people’s blood and test whether these proteins can neutralise the different variants that have been detected to date.
The extra funding will increase the site’s capacity from 700 tests being sampled a week to 3,000, according to the government.
It’s hoped the extra research will help Porton Down scientists to support the rapid development of vaccines designed to combat the different mutations that have been emerging in Sars-CoV-2 – the virus responsible for Covid-19.
Experts say mutations could spark a new, more infectious wave of coronavirus spreading in the UK. Jenny Harries, chief executive at the UK Health Security Agency, 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.”
Early evidence suggests that the current vaccines are effective against the variants that were originally detected in Kent and South Africa.
The full impact of the other known variants, such as those found in India and Manaus, has yet to be ascertained, with laboratory testing ongoing.
The new funding, which brings recent expenditure on Porton Down to £49m, is part of a £6bn budget put aside for the development, manufacturing and procurement of Covid-19 vaccines as the UK steps out of the acute phase of its epidemic.
“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,” said vaccines minster Nadhim Zahawi.
Manufacturers such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer are also exploring the possibility of updating their vaccines to target the concerning mutations seen in the new coronavirus variants.