New research is to be carried out into how long immunity lasts after a coronavirus vaccine, with scientists hoping this could help inform the design of future jabs.
Some £1.5 million is being invested in understanding why some people get Covid-19 despite being jabbed or having had the virus before, while others do not.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new research will “help us gain valuable insights”, while public health leader Dr Susan Hopkins said the findings will be “essential” in concluding who is most at risk post-jab and for vaccine developers in designing boosters.
Research earlier this week concluded that the protection provided by two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines starts to wane within six months. One reasonable worst-case scenario suggests that protection could fall to below 50% for the elderly and healthcare workers by winter.
A separate study found 40% of people who are immunosuppressed – either through medical treatment or by disease – generated a lower antibody response compared with healthy adults.
As well as re-infection and how long immunity after vaccinations lasts, the new research announced by Public Health England will look at the length of immunity from different vaccines and how changes in the genetic make-up of the virus might allow it to get around the immune response.
Antibody results from almost 50,000 healthcare professionals enrolled in two major existing studies who test positive for Covid despite previously having the virus or being double-jabbed will be analysed to find out whether there are aspects of their immune response that are different to people who do not contract the virus.
The findings could help identify factors that increase the risk of “breakthrough” infections, where someone catches the virus despite being vaccinated, PHE said.
People taking part in the research might also be asked if they would like their genetic code analysed, to see if there are particular mutations in their DNA that might predict a poor response to vaccination, they added.
Dr Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at PHE, said: “Understanding the immune response is essential not only to determine who is most at risk of infections after vaccination, but also for vaccine developers who can target key components of the immune response effectively for future booster vaccines.
“We are pleased that this funding will allow us to better understand immunity and are very grateful to the nearly 50,000 participants who have given up their time to take part in the study.”
Mr Javid said: “Alongside the recent launch of a new UK-wide antibody testing programme, this new study will help us gain valuable insights into the immune response following vaccination or natural infection.”
The £1.5 million from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will go to a group of academic partners led by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
The group will include the PHE Siren study, as well as the Protective Immunity from T-Cells in Healthcare workers (Pitch) study, the Humoral Immune Correlates of Covid-19 (HICC), the Genotype to Phenotype (G2P) Consortium, GENOMICC and the Francis Crick Institute.
Dr Rupert Beale, head of the Crick Institute’s cell biology of infection laboratory, said: “Understanding immunity is crucial to the pandemic response.
“We are teaming up with PHE and partners across the UK to get the best measurements of the body’s immune response after vaccination.
“We would like to understand which aspects of the immune response are the best predictors of vaccine efficacy.
“This will let us target additional doses of vaccine to people who might need them, and will inform the design of next generation vaccines to get better protection against emerging viral variants.”