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LONDON: Scientists at Imperial College London have abandoned testing of their coronavirus vaccine to focus on combating emerging variants of the virus detected around the world.

The decision comes as the scientific community scrambles to get ahead of the new threat, which could require updated inoculations.

Prof. Robin Shattock, head of the vaccine team at Imperial, said scientists will now use the ribonucleic acid (RNA) technology behind the initial vaccine to target new and emerging coronavirus variants.

“Although our first generation vaccine candidate is showing promise in early clinical development, the broader situation has changed with the rapid rollout of approved vaccines,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

“It is not the right time to start a new efficacy trial for a further vaccine in the UK, with the emphasis rightly placed on mass vaccination in response to the rapid spread of the new variant.”

Shattock said his team would develop the new vaccine technology as “a safety net to catch escaped mutations, reach variants that other vaccines may not, and meet potential needs for annual booster vaccinations.”

The Imperial vaccine uses the same design as the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech jabs. It employs self-amplifying RNA to force an immune reaction from the body, producing vital antibodies and T-cells that offer protection.

The vaccine’s initial trials came last summer as scientists around the world raced to develop the first effective jab.

However, with the UK and many other countries successfully moving forward with mass vaccine rollouts, Imperial and other top teams have decided to change course.

The technology used in the Imperial jab can be adapted to target new variants and mutations of coronavirus. This could fast-track the development of updated vaccines as the pandemic worsens in some parts of the world.

The Imperial team has also found methods to store new RNA vaccines in standard refrigeration for months, where current vaccines require expensive ultra-low temperature storage.

Shattock said: “Imperial College is working with philanthropists, investors, government and industry partners to take this exciting technology further.”

The UK government will continue its support for Imperial’s self-amplifying RNA technology as part of its anti-coronavirus policy.

Prof. Alice Gast, president of Imperial, said: “The self-amplifying RNA vaccine has much to offer in the fight against coronavirus and other diseases.

“This exciting technology will help accelerate future vaccine production, providing the agility to defend against viral mutations, and protect current and future generations from pandemics.”

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