AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot
Pascal Soriot: ‘It’s really interesting when you look at the UK, there was a big peak of infections, but not so many hospitalisations relative to Europe’ © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The AstraZeneca vaccine can help stave off serious Covid-19 illness in older people for longer, according to Pascal Soriot, the head of the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceuticals company, who noted that the UK currently had lower hospitalisations than much of Europe.

The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford university has been used extensively across the UK, where the number of people admitted to hospital has continued to fall even as infections are increasing.

But it was used much less in Europe, where a surge in infections and hospitalisations have put health services on high alert. Austria, where 28.7 people per 100,000 are in hospital compared with the UK’s 12 per 100,000, this week reimposed a full lockdown to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

Responding to Soriot’s remarks, scientists said too few studies had measured the performance of the vaccines side-by-side to determine a specific correlation. Soriot also emphasised there was no “proof” of a link and further data was needed.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, he said: “It’s really interesting when you look at the UK, there was a big peak of infections, but not so many hospitalisations relative to Europe.”

Asked if this was linked to the bloc’s failure to use the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in older people, Soriot replied: “What I’m saying is that T-cells do matter and in particular as it relates to the durability of the response, especially in older people, and this vaccine has been shown to stimulate T-cells to a higher degree in older people.”

T-cells, which help the body “remember” past infections and kill pathogens if they reappear, influence how long people remain resistant to diseases that they have previously contracted or been immunised against.

Pressed on any connection with the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab in older people, he said: “There’s no proof of anything — we don’t know. But we need more data to analyse this and get the answer.”

The UK used the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab heavily at the start of its vaccination campaign, as it began immunising older and more vulnerable people first. Many European countries stopped using it, especially for younger people, over fears about a possible link with rare blood clots.

Lance Turtle, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Liverpool, said trials and real-world experience showed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was “excellent” at stopping severe disease and death, but no clinical trial had properly assessed its effectiveness versus other vaccines.

“This would be the only way to be sure that one vaccine was really more effective than another,” Turtle said. Alternative jabs produced by Pfizer and Moderna are made using a newer technology called messenger RNA.

Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at Edinburgh University, said trials suggested the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine “initially induces higher levels of T-cells than the mRNA vaccines”. The implication was that “it may provide longer term protection against hospitalisation and death”, she added.

Yet making direct comparison was very difficult because the vaccines had been rolled out at different times and in different groups of people with different underlying health conditions, she noted.

Matthew Snape, associate professor in paediatrics and vaccinology at Oxford university, and chief investigator of the Com-COV trial, which compared antibody and T-cell responses in those receiving the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs, also injected a note of caution.

His study “showed that, while a single dose of the [Oxford/AstraZeneca] vaccine does induce a better T-cell response than the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, shortly after two doses the T-cell response was very similar”. Researchers were now examining what the responses looked like up to six months after the second dose, he added.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine faces an uncertain future in the UK after being sidelined from the booster programme, which the country is relying on to avoid further restrictions.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London

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