So what's the deal with the latest COVID-19 jab to be approved?

·3-min read
Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov - Getty Images
Photo credit: Yulia Reznikov - Getty Images

A new COVID-19 vaccine, produced by French pharmaceutical company Valneva, has been given approval for use in the UK, by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This makes the UK the first European country to grant approval for this shot.

What is the Valneva vaccine?

Okay, so the Valneva vaccine for COVID-19 is constructed in a slightly different way to some of the other approved jabs, such as those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca. This is because this medicine is an inactivated whole-virus vaccine.

If that sounds a tad technical, then here's the break down. The live virus was grown in a lab, then deactivated, so that it cannot infect your cells, before being injected into people, in order to trigger an immune response.

How does the Valneva vaccine work?

As such, if you're given this shot, when your body encounters the real virus out in the wild, it has already learnt how to attack it. This means a reduced chance of contracting the infection, and that you should suffer a milder illness, if you are infected. (The previously mentioned vaccines focus on helping your body to recognise the virus' spike protein, as opposed to additional proteins in the virus, as this whole-virus vaccine does.)

This style of vaccine is not new, and is used in the vaccines to protect against illness such as flu and polio. 'Inactivated vaccines are a well-established technology used over the last seventy years to vaccinate billions – including for seasonal flu, polio and rabies,' said Dr Juan Carlos Jaramillo, Valneva’s Chief Medical Officer.

Much as with the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, it will be administered via two doses.

What are the potential benefits of the Valneva vaccine?

The fact that this vaccine is a whole-virus vaccine, as opposed to a spike protein vaccine, means it has some key benefits. 'One particular advantage of the Valneva vaccine is that it is made up of the whole SARS-CoV-2 virus, not just the spike protein. This means that it will induce antibodies and T-cell cells against many different components of the virus, including components that are much less susceptible to variation than the spike protein.

'It is possible, therefore, that this vaccine may provide better protection against new variants as they arise,' said Prof Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease, University of Edinburgh.

Then, there's a pretty important practical factor. 'The fact that the vaccine can be stored in a regular refrigerator will make it much easier to deploy in remote areas and in areas lacking resilient cold chains. Whilst the initial vaccine roll out is more or less complete in Europe and North America, there are still large areas of Africa, Asia and South America where vaccination rates remain woefully low; anything that eases access to vaccine in these areas will be hugely valuable,' added Prof Riley.

Will the Valneva vaccine make a difference to the UK vaccine roll-out?

First off, according to Prof Adam Finn, the Chief Investigator of the Valneva vaccine clinical development programme in the UK and a professor of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol, you're not likely to be actually offered this shot, any time soon. That's because the government cancelled its contract to buy the vaccine last year.

That's not to say that this approval isn't meaningful. Prof Riley noted that while approval of this vaccine might not have a dramatic impact on the UK vaccination effort in the near future, that's not to say that this new development isn't meaningful.

'Approval of this vaccine by the MHRA may not make an immediate difference to vaccination programmes in the UK, but may ease the path for approval of the vaccine in countries that are still in desperate need,' she said.

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