Laboratories to test current and new COVID-19 vaccines against variants of concern are to be built at Porton Down, the government has announced.

A total of £29.3m will go towards building the “state-of-the-art” laboratories at Public Health England’s new testing facilities at the Ministry of Defence’s top-secret complex in Wiltshire.

Scientists will be able to test 3,000 blood samples a week – more than four times the current number – for the levels of COVID-19 antibodies generated by vaccines so they can assess their effectiveness against variants of concern.

Increasing the number of tests will allow vaccines designed to “combat specific mutations of COVID-19” to be developed quickly, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

There are fears about vaccines not being effective against variants that can be more transmissible and more deadly.

Since the pandemic started in March 2020, the virus that causes COVID-19 has managed to quickly develop several mutations that have concerned scientists, including the Kent, South African, Indian, and Brazil variants.

Anthony Harnden, deputy chief of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the government, warned in March booster vaccines to fight future variants may be needed as early as this autumn.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The UK has proven itself to be a world-class force in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, with the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Novavax and Valneva vaccines all researched, developed or manufactured on British soil.

“We’ve backed UK science from the very start of this pandemic and this multi-million pound funding for a state-of-the-art vaccine testing facility at Porton Down will enable us to further future-proof the country from the threat of new variants.

“We are committed to supporting the UK’s flourishing life sciences industry and this announcement is yet another critical way we will build back better to protect the country over the coming months and years.”

Scientists at Porton Down are used to handling some of the most dangerous substances in the world
Image: Scientists at Porton Down are used to handling some of the most dangerous substances in the world

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Novavax vaccine candidate, being manufactured in Teeside, had been found to work “very well” against both the South African variant and the Kent variant, which is dominant in the UK.

However, Mr Zahawi said no decisions had yet been taken on which vaccines to use for booster shots, or when booster shots should be given and to whom.

Plans are being formed now to enable the NHS – if needed – to give vaccine boosters to the most vulnerable groups from September, he added.

Mr Zahawi said: “The clinicians haven’t yet made a decision on when they will need to boost – whether to give more immunity to the most vulnerable, to increase the durability of the protection – or to deal with a variant.

“When they decide, I want to give them as much optionality, as many vaccines that work, then they will make those choices.

“There is a clinical trial that (deputy chief medical officer) Jonathan Van-Tam is conducting, called Cov-Boost, which looks at which vaccine delivers the best boost.

“So it’s not just Pfizer, it could be AstraZeneca, it could be Novavax, it could be the Valneva vaccine.

“All that work is happening right now so that when the clinicians say go, the NHS is putting plans in place now to deploy from September onwards, if needed, it may not be September, it may be later in the year or early next year.

“They need to dovetail, of course, with the flu vaccination programme because we’ll be into flu season by then.

“All that work we’re doing right now to make sure we futureproof the short-term boost and the longer-term annual COVID/flu vaccination programme.”

The new laboratories will be in addition to facilities at Porton Down approved in September that will more than double the current clinical testing of vaccines from 700 variant samples a week to 1,500 by January 2022 at a cost of £19.7m.

A date for when the new laboratories should be finished by has not been released by the government.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the newly formed UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said a new variant that can escape the current vaccines is “the greatest risk of a third wave” and the new investment will “help us stay one step ahead of the virus”.

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