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Scientists are warning the UK should be prepared for the worst this winter as a COVID-19 vaccine may not be ready.
The Science and Technology Committee heard that if the flu season is particularly bad this year, there could be “pandemonium in A&E departments”.
Chairman Greg Clark asked experts if the country should be preparing for the winter without a COVID-19 vaccine, or if one might be ready in time.
Sir John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, said that it should not be assumed that there will be one.
“This whole epidemic has relied too heavily on assumptions that have turned out not to be true,” he said.
“So, my strong advice is be prepared for the worst.”
Sir John agreed that being prepared for the first wave of the coronavirus will not be the same as being prepared for a second wave, saying: “If we have a really bad flu season, there will be difficulty separating flu from COVID patients.”
He also stressed that the number of people getting flu vaccines should be expanded, as “uptake is lamentably small in some areas”.
“This could be really serious if people don’t get their flu vaccines… It’s surprising how many people who are eligible don’t get the flu vaccine,” he said.
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The committee session focused on the progress made on the development of vaccines and treatments in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oxford University was described by Kate Bingham, from the UK Government Vaccine Taskforce, as having “the most advanced vaccine anywhere in the world”.
There remains a question over whether it will be a “sterilising” vaccine that prevents infection or a “symptom-alleviating” vaccine that reduces mortality.
Scientists were reluctant to give a “firm timeline”, saying any vaccine is dependent on the results of their trials.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology from the University of Oxford, said she is “relatively optimistic” they will succeed.
The project has started its third phase of human trials, with 8,000 volunteers enrolled so far.
Professor Gilbert said: “We are very happy that we are seeing the right sort of immune response.”
The professor also explained that scientists cannot show that a vaccine works unless there are high levels of infection.
It means that due to the current low transmission rates in the UK, teams from Oxford University are carrying out trials in other countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, where transmission rates are high.
Scientists from Oxford will also be partnering with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to start a large study in the US, aiming to involve 30,000 people.