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Immunology society launches Covid vaccine information site

As UK temporarily bans some flights amid fears over new South African variant of coronavirus

A group of top immunologists have launched a website to help researchers undertake Covid-19 vaccine research, as a potentially “vaccine-resistant” variant of the virus has emerged leading to new UK travel restrictions.

Launched by the British Society for Immunology on 22 November, the UK Covid Vaccine Research Hub includes information on upcoming funding calls and awards, collaborations, and advice on how to communicate research to the public.

Features include a directory of research publications relating to Covid-19 vaccines and information about trials currently underway, including how they are funded, what they aim to achieve and how to become involved.

The website, which is funded by the UK national research funder, UK Research and Innovation, also includes a set of pages dedicated to the public, with information on how the immune system responds to Covid-19, how vaccines prevent illness, and information for specific groups.

A third section aimed at policymakers includes reports, briefings and other resources.

Doug Brown, the society’s chief executive, said the pandemic had seen an “unprecedented spotlight on scientific research, and on vaccines in particular”.

“Never has there been more appetite for information and knowledge about how vaccines work, how they are developed and tested, and about the risks and benefits for individuals,” he said.

“This exciting new initiative, the UK Covid Vaccine Research Hub, aims to help meet this demand while promoting awareness and support for the work being undertaken by UK research teams, whose explorations are vital to global efforts to bring us out of the pandemic.”

Concerns over new variant

The website comes amid reports of a “heavily mutated” Covid-19 variant, B.1.1.529, thought to have originated in South Africa, leading to new travel restrictions, with temporary bans on flights from several African countries into the UK.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said the UK would be placing six countries on the red travel list, and that anyone who has been in South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe in the past 10 days, and who is not a UK or Irish citizen, will be denied entry into England.

“We are concerned that this new variant may pose a substantial risk to public health,” said Javid on 26 November. “Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it.”

Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, described the variant as “very worrying”.

“Some of the mutations that are similar to changes we’ve seen in other variants of concern are associated with enhanced transmissibility, and with partial resistance to immunity induced by vaccination or natural infection,” he said.

He added that there is an urgent need for laboratory studies to determine whether the antibodies induced by current vaccines are able to block infection with the new variant.

Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said the government’s move to restrict travel is “prudent”.

“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it’s too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses,” he said.

“Addressing that gap is a top priority of researchers in South Africa and their partners around the world, including at Imperial College.”