AstraZeneca may offer longer-lasting immunity than other vaccines, scientists have said amid claims that the jab has helped Britain avoid the latest Covid wave in Europe.
Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of AstraZeneca, said the decision to give the Oxford vaccine to older people in Britain could be one of the reasons the UK was not seeing not “so many hospitalisations relative to Europe” despite a high number of cases.
The Telegraph understands that the pharmaceutical company is preparing to release data showing that its jab offers long term T-cell immunity for older people even after antibodies wane. Mr Soriot said the immunity provided by T-cells may be “more durable”.
Several countries – including France, Germany, Spain and Belgium – restricted the AstraZeneca vaccine to under-65s in the early stages of their rollouts, claiming there was not enough data to prove it worked for older people.
In France, daily infections passed 30,000 for the first time since August on Tuesday, with an increase of 63 per cent in a week. Germany confirmed it was planning to make vaccination mandatory for soldiers. The seven-day average of Covid deaths in the country is now twice that in Britain.
“European leaders had all these unfounded concerns about AstraZeneca and its use in older people,” a senior government source said. “If you look at the data, you can see us using it early has been incredibly helpful in terms of protecting older and vulnerable people from this disease for longer.”
British experts said Mr Soriot’s claims were “plausible” and may be the reason why hospitalisations and deaths have been relatively low even though cases are high.
Dr Peter English, a former editor of Vaccines in Practice who previously chaired the BMA public health medicine committee, said: “People whose immune systems have produced a strong T-cell response but a weaker antibody response might be more likely to be infected in the first place but more likely to be able to fight the infection, and they will be much less likely to develop severe disease.”
Commenting on the UK’s high infection but low hospitalisation rates, he said: “It is plausible that this generated an excellent T-cell response, which means that while people can still be infected and infectious, they are unlikely to be seriously unwell.”
Prof Matthew Snape, of Oxford University, who was chief investigator on booster jabs trials, said: “The best T-cell responses seem to come if you give a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine followed by Pfizer.”
Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-septic Tory MPs, criticised European politicians for snubbing the jab and called for AstraZeneca’s data to be made public.
“Serious politicians ought not to need reminding that what they say and what they do is often a matter of life and death,” Mr Baker told The Telegraph. “Once more, it looks like political condemnation from Europe of AstraZeneca may have cost lives.
“I hope we will see the data and find the facts. If the Government and AstraZeneca have the data, it would be helpful to get it into the public domain.”
Mr Soriot told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the ability of the AstraZeneca jab to stimulate a long-lasting T-cell response in older people “could be” the reason Britain was faring better than Europe.
“We haven’t seen many hospitalisations in the UK – a lot of infections for sure – but what matters is are you severely ill or not, are you hospitalised or not?” he said. “And we haven’t seen so many of these hospitalisations in the UK.
“The antibody response is what drives the immediate reaction or defence of the body when you’re attacked by the virus, and the T-cell response takes a little longer to come in, but it’s actually more durable – it lasts longer and the body remembers that longer.”
Although Covid cases in Britain are rising again, with 42,484 recorded on Tuesday, deaths are down 5.5 per cent and hospitalisations by 9.5 per cent since last week.
Ahead of the booster vacciness programme decision, several members of the Oxford/AstraZeneca team, including Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, said third jabs may be unnecessary because two doses offered such good long-term protection.
Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, said a growing number of trials had shown that AstraZeneca initially gives higher levels of T-cells, even if mRNA vaccines like Pfizer are better at producing antibodies.
“Since the AstraZeneca vaccine is slightly better at inducing these T-cells, the implication is that it may provide longer term protection against hospitalisation and death,” she added.
Earlier this month, a team of researchers from University College London published data showing that some people already have T-cell protection against Covid as a result of previous infection with a different coronavirus such as a common cold.
Experts also said high levels of infections in the summer and early autumn meant many people in Britain had gained natural immunity to the virus.
New estimates from the Office for National Statistics and the Covid Infection Survey show that over nine in 10 adults across the UK have antibodies to Covid.