Oxford-AstraZeneca researchers attempt to battle variants

Researchers at Oxford-AstraZeneca are working on a more effective shot to tackle new coronavirus variants. The testing comes as the company conducts U.S. trials to present for FDA approval. CBS News foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata reports.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: Mutated strains of COVID-19 are creating new challenges in finding the virus. Researchers at Oxford AstraZeneca are working on a more effective shot to tackle the new variants. The testing comes as the company conducts US trials to present for FDA approval. Charlie D'Agata explains.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: With America and the globe staring down the barrel of one contagious variant after another, a small team at Oxford University has been preparing its own preemptive strike to take down the variants before they take hold, modifying the hugely effective Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine designed by Professor Sarah Gilbert.

Development already in the lab?

SARAH GILBERT: Yes.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: Including the South African variant?

SARAH GILBERT: We started in December. We started working on new variants in December.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: The ability to turn on a dime, she says, is down to the platform used in the original Oxford vaccine, which she described as plug and play.

SARAH GILBERT: You decide what antigen you want to use from the virus that you want to make a vaccine against, exactly which version of it, and then you slot it in, and you make your vaccine.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: And because they have their own bio-manufacturing facility on campus, modifications can be fast-tracked.

SARAH GILBERT: When we've established our pipeline, we make the first seed stock of the vaccine in the manufacturing facility in Oxford. That's just a few minutes away from here on this campus.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: She told us, a modified vaccine to deal with not just the South African variant, but a number of variants of concern, could be rolled out in the US in a matter of months.

By the fall?

SARAH GILBERT: The plan is to have a new version of the vaccine available for the autumn, I would call it, of this year.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: AstraZeneca tells CBS News, the company expects data from US trials in the coming weeks to then present to the FDA for emergency approval. Even before a modification, Oxford scientists say the vaccine proved highly effective in tackling what had been the runaway UK variant here. Real-life preliminary data showing it kept hospitalizations down by 94%, even outperforming the Pfizer vaccine.

ANDREW POLLARD: Lately, we've seen the first widespread use of a vaccine in a setting where there's a new variant that's emerged. And the vaccine has impact against that variant that is astonishing.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: He says, part of the reason for that success is the 12-week gap between shots in the UK, rather than the four-week program currently standard in the US.

ANDREW POLLARD: So if you can give that vaccine to many, many more people as the first dose, that ends hospitalization and deaths immediately, whilst if you give two doses close together, you're selfishly giving those two doses to half the number of people and slowing down that rollout and that protection of the population.

CHARLIE D'AGATA: Scientists say the more protection of the population, the less the chance the virus has to mutate. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization approved the Oxford vaccine for international use. AstraZeneca has yet to even submit the vaccine to the FDA for emergency medical use awaiting the results of clinical trials in America. But with more than 500,000 people dead in the US and new variants on the horizon, the need to roll out more shots more quickly has never been higher. Charlie D'Agata, CBS News, Oxford, England.