Health

Covid UK: South African variant may lengthen lockdown, SAGE warns


Boris Johnson today refused to rule out extending lockdown if the South African variant continues to spread amid fears Oxford University’s vaccine may not stop people falling ill with the mutant strain.

An alarming study found the British-made jab had ‘minimal effect’ in preventing mild disease caused by the strain, suggesting vaccinated people may still be able to catch and spread it. One prominent SAGE adviser claimed the finding meant ‘more restrictions might be needed for longer’.

Pressed on whether there may need to be a delay to easing restrictions if the jab is proven to be less effective at reducing transmission of the South African variant, the Prime Minister said vaccines are ‘going to offer a way out’ and ‘remain of massive benefit to our country’ — but failed to dismiss the prospect of a lockdown extension.

During a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility in Derby, he said: ‘We’re very confident in all the vaccines that we’re using. And I think it’s important for people to bear in mind that all of them, we think, are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death, which is the most important thing.’ 

Top experts — including Oxford academics and the UK’s leading vaccine panel — also believe the jab will protect against severe illness, ultimately easing pressure on the NHS when lockdown restrictions are eventually lifted and saving tens of thousands of lives.

Health minister Edward Argar told the public not to lose sight of the main purpose of jabs – which is to drive down hospital admissions and deaths to manageable levels. His comments echoed those of vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi, who said preventing severe disease was the ‘vitally important’ factor for the roll-out. 

Government sources insisted the worrying study — which prompted South Africa to stop dishing out the Oxford jab — had not changed the plan to get schools back from March 8. However, they pointed out the PM had cited the threat of new variants as a factor that will be taken into account when decisions are made on easing lockdown. 

So far there have only been 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant in the UK but this is likely to be a vast underestimate because up until last week officials were only analysing 10 per cent of random positive swabs. 

Scientists say the true number of cases is likely 10 to 20 times higher than the official count. No10 has deployed extra testing into more than 10 areas of England where the South African strain is thought to be spreading in the community. 

It comes as at least ten vaccination centres due to inoculate thousands were shut today as Storm Darcy struck the UK with 50mph winds and a foot of snow turning roads into ‘lethal’ ice rinks. Hundreds of elderly and frail people were also left ‘freezing’ as they queued up outside in the cold to receive their Covid jab outside a football stadium today.

Almost 12.3million Brits have already had their first dose, with the Government on course to hit its ambitious target of vaccinating around 15million by February 15. Another 280,000 people received their first jab yesterday.

It comes as Britain today recorded 333 more Covid deaths, in the lowest daily toll for six weeks. Health chiefs also posted 14,014 new infections, marking the lowest figure since the start of December. 

During a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility in Derby, Boris Johnson also insisted the vaccine should still stop prevent the majority of severe cases caused by the South African variant, which would ease pressure on the NHS when lockdown restrictions are eventually lifted and save tens of thousands of lives

During a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility in Derby, Boris Johnson also insisted the vaccine should still stop prevent the majority of severe cases caused by the South African variant, which would ease pressure on the NHS when lockdown restrictions are eventually lifted and save tens of thousands of lives

The coronavirus vaccination centre at Gainsborough sports centre in Ipswich, Suffolk, which was closed today due to the snow

The coronavirus vaccination centre at Gainsborough sports centre in Ipswich, Suffolk, which was closed today due to the snow 

Hundreds of elderly and frail people were left 'freezing' as they queued up outside in the cold to receive their Covid jab outside Home Park in Plymouth today

Hundreds of elderly and frail people were left ‘freezing’ as they queued up outside in the cold to receive their Covid jab outside Home Park in Plymouth today

The three Covid variants causing international alarm emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil

The three Covid variants causing international alarm emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil

No10 has deployed extra testing into 11 areas of England where the South African strain is thought to be spreading in the community

No10 has deployed extra testing into 11 areas of England where the South African strain is thought to be spreading in the community

Ursula von der Leyen lashes out at Boris Johnson’s ‘space race’ approach to vaccines

Ursula von der Leyen has taken a barbed swipe at Boris Johnson over his ‘space race’ approach to vaccines as she faces a huge backlash over the EU shambles.

The European Commission president complained that some countries saw the drive to inoculate populations as a Cold War style ‘confrontation’.

The comments, as she addressed students attending the online Warwick Economics Summit, follow bitter clashes between the bloc and Britain over supplies.

Meanwhile, German minister Peter Altmeier has dismissed comparisons with the UK’s faster rollout, saying Mr Johnson’s handling of the crisis had resulted in a higher death rate and ‘endless suffering to tens of thousands of families’.

The UK hit another vaccination milestone yesterday, with 12million people having been given jabs.

However, there are rising concerns today that mutant coronavirus strains could derail the huge push – with research suggesting the AstraZeneca jab is less effective against the South African variant.

Asked on a visit to Derbyshire if the lockdown timetable could be delayed by the worrying news, the PM said: ‘We are very confident in all the vaccines that we are using.

‘I think it is important for people to bear in mind that all of them we think are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death which is the important thing.’

In other coronavirus developments today:

  • Britain is on course to hit its target of vaccinating the 14.5million most vulnerable three days early, with 450,000 being jabbed every day;
  • A top immunologist at Imperial College London said the UK ‘can still win’ the fight against Covid because there will only be a ‘finite’ number of worrying variants;
  • Bosses who demand their staff get the coronavirus vaccine in order to work would not be breaking the law, ministers believe amid fears employees could be forced into mandatory vaccination;  
  • Britain’s hotel quarantine scheme has come under fresh criticism on Sunday when it emerged 35 countries where mutant coronavirus strains have been found are not on the list;
  • South Africa will suspend the start of its Covid-19 vaccinations with Oxford’s jab amid fears it does not work as well against the variant that emerged there;
  • UK ministers today made clear they are looking at extending the school year in England amid fears the most vulnerable children have fallen further behind.

Officials will analyse every positive result produced in postcodes in London, Kent, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Lancashire, Worcester and Walsall in the West Midlands, to prevent the strain from becoming widespread.

Mr Johnson did not rule out that the South African variant could lead to a delay in easing restrictions if it reduces the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine’s effect on transmissibility.

His comments came after Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert from Warwick University and member of the SAGE sub-group SPI-M, claimed the finding that the Oxford jab doesn’t protect against mild illness could have ‘significant implications’ on Britain’s lockdown-easing plans.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘It means that even with high levels of vaccination there will be a lot of people that could potentially get infected and could potentially pass it on and it may mean that more restrictions might be needed for longer if we can’t get on top of this.’

Pressed on whether there could be a delay to easing restrictions if the jab is less effective at reducing transmission of the South African variant, the PM said: ‘We think that all the vaccines that we’re using, both the vaccines that we’re currently using, are effective in stopping serious disease and death.

‘We also think, particularly in the case of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, that there is good evidence that it is stopping transmission as well, I think 67 per cent reduction in transmission with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

‘They remain of massive benefit to our country and to the population as we go through the pandemic and I’ve no doubt that vaccines generally are going to offer a way out. With every day that goes by you can see that medicine is slowly getting the upper hand over the disease.’ 

He added: ‘We will be continuing to study the results, the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout, and that’s going very, very fast indeed, and we will be looking at ways in which the population is starting to respond to the vaccines as we prepare to say what we’re going to do in the week of the 22nd and what kind of roadmap we want to lay out.’

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One of South Africa’s top infectious disease experts said today the Oxford jab should still protect against severe disease.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of the country’s Covid response unit, pointed to the trial of Johnson and Johnson’s jab, which uses the same technology as Oxford’s and was shown to be 100 per cent effective at stopping Covid hospitalisations and deaths. 

Mr Argar said this morning there was ‘no evidence’ that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective at preventing severe illness from coronavirus.

He told Sky News: ‘There is no evidence that this vaccine is not effective in preventing hospitalisation, severe illness and death, which is ultimately what we’re seeking with these vaccines.’

The minister noted that the ‘dominant strains in this country are not the South African strain’, with ‘only a small number of cases of that’.

Government sources said last night there was ‘no indication’ the easing of lockdown would be affected by the findings that the Oxford vaccine is less effective against the South African variant.  

Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert and member of the Sage advisory panel, said Britain could face more lockdown restrictions if the South African Covid variant continues to spread

UK health minister Edward Argar

Professor Mike Tildesley (left), an infectious disease expert and member of the Sage advisory panel, said Britain could face more lockdown restrictions if the South African Covid variant continues to spread. UK health minister Edward Argar (right) urged the public not to lose sight of the main purpose of vaccines – which is to drive down hospital admissions and deaths to manageable levels

‘Hotel quarantine’ plan will finally be unveiled in the ‘coming days’ amid rising fears over South African variant

Scientists have floated GPS tracking of phones to help secure UK borders amid rising fears over importing Covid variants – as ministers said details of the ‘quarantine hotels’ plan will finally be revealed in the ‘coming days’.

SAGE experts cited the option as a way of increasing compliance with isolation, with fears many are simply ignoring the rules once they get to Britain.

The new quarantine system is not expected to be up and running until February 15, despite being announced three weeks ago, as concerns run high over the threat from mutant strains and whether they could delay lockdown being eased.

Preliminary research has suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine might only reduce severe illness from the South African version, rather than blocking it altogether. South Africa has suspended rollout of the jabs until the situation becomes clearer. 

In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Edward Argar offered reassurance about the effectiveness of the vaccine. 

He stressed that the ‘dominant strains in the UK currently are not the South African strain’, with ‘only a small number of cases of that’. 

He told Sky News: ‘There is no evidence that this vaccine is not effective in preventing hospitalisation, severe illness and death, which is ultimately what we’re seeking with these vaccines.’

But Mr Argar refused to give a firm timetable for when Matt Hancock will announce the details of the ‘hotel quarantines’ plan, which had been promised last week, merely saying it will be ‘in the coming days’. 

Mr Zahawi highlighted the low levels of the South African variant means it is unlikely to overtake the Kent one and become the dominant strain in the UK any time soon.  

A tweaked version of the Oxford vaccine that targets the new strain is already in development and should be ready by August. 

The current vaccine rollout should buy jab-makers time until the new booster shots are available, he suggested.

He added that South Africa’s suspension of the rollout of the vaccine is only ‘temporary’ at this stage.

The study – by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, that found the Oxford jab had a ‘minimal effect’ in protecting against mild disease caused by the variant – involved 2,000 volunteers, most of whom were young and healthy with an average age of 31. 

The study also appeared to show that the South African mutations will allow for ongoing transmission of the virus in vaccinated populations.

Out of 865 people vaccinated with two doses of the Oxford vaccine, 19 contracted the new variant, and out of 884 in the group given a placebo, 23 contracted the disease. Two thirds of the cases were of mild illness, and one third moderate. There were no severe cases.

The researchers also found that previous infection with ‘original’ coronavirus did not protect against contracting the South African variant.

Oxford University said the study did not assess levels of protection against moderate to severe disease, hospital admission or death because the target population was at such low risk.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said: ‘We do believe our vaccine will still protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to eight to 12 weeks.’

The spokesman added that other immune responses, such as T-cell responses, may have a role in protecting against disease, and initial data suggests these may stay the same with the variant.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: ‘Evidence suggests the Oxford AZ vaccine protects against disease caused by the predominant Covid variants circulating in the UK. 

‘It remains highly likely that the vaccine will also protect against severe disease caused by the South African variant.’

South Africa announced last night it is suspending the start of its Covid-19 vaccinations with the Oxford jab on the back of the findings.

Africa’s hardest-hit nation was due to start its campaign in the coming days with a million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford.

The suspension marks an important setback for the country, but officials said vaccine deliveries from other producers would soon be available and allow the campaign to move forward.

South Africa suspends rollout of Oxford jab

South Africa will suspend the start of its Covid-19 vaccinations with the AstraZeneca jab after a study showed the drug failed to prevent mild and moderate cases of the virus variant that has appeared in the country.

Africa’s hardest-hit nation was due to start its campaign in the coming days with a million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford.

The suspension marks an important setback for the country, but officials said vaccine deliveries from other producers would soon be available and allow the campaign to move forward.

‘It’s a temporary issue that we have to hold on AstraZeneca until we figure out these issues,’ Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters during a virtual press conference.

‘It’s a temporary issue that we have to hold on AstraZeneca until we figure out these issues,’ Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters during a virtual press conference.

Professor Robin Shattock, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research at Imperial College London, urged caution about the study’s findings. ‘It’s a very small study with just over 2,000 people,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

‘But it is concerning to some extent that we’re seeing that it’s not effective against mild or moderate disease.’ 

Professor Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the Oxford trial, said: ‘This study confirms that the coronavirus will find ways to continue to spread in vaccinated populations, as expected.

‘But, taken with the promising results from other studies in South Africa, vaccines may continue to ease the toll on healthcare systems by preventing severe disease.’

Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, told Times Radio: ‘I think we can still win; it’s just got so much tougher again.’

But he added: ‘I think the number of variants that can come out of this spike antigen is finite, and we’re not going to be playing this catch-up game forever.

‘There is an end in sight and there is tweaking to be done, but I think we’ll get there.’

Dr Peter English, a consultant in public health and former chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said: ‘While it has been widely reported that the AstraZeneca vaccine is ‘less effective’ against the South African variant, we must remember that, in full, this should read ‘less effective than it is against previous variants’. 

‘It is by no means clear if it is more or less effective against the variant than other vaccines.’ 

On Saturday, AstraZeneca said its vaccine provided good protection against the variant first discovered in Kent, which is now dominant in the UK. Early results suggest the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine protects against the new variants.

Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is still effective against the South Africa variant.  

Meanwhile, a booster jab that will help tackle the South African variant of coronavirus should be ready by the autumn, scientists said yesterday. 

Professor Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher in the Oxford team, said current vaccines ‘have a reduction in efficacy against some of the variant viruses’. 

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But she added: ‘What that is looking like is that we may not be reducing the total number of cases but there’s still protection in that case against deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.

Fury as 35 countries with recorded cases of South African and Brazilian Covid variants are left OFF the Government’s quarantine red list 

Britain’s hotel quarantine scheme came under fresh criticism on Sunday when it emerged 35 countries where mutant coronavirus strains have been found are not on the list. 

Earlier this week, the Government confirmed that all passengers from 33 ‘red list’ countries would have to quarantine for ten days in a hotel from February 15.

But an analysis carried out by the World Health Organisation has found dozens of countries where the highly-infectious South African and Brazilian variants have been found are not on the list. 

They include Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and the United States. 

Labour Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds reacted with fury at the news, branding the Government’s quarantine measures ‘dangerously inadequate’.   

Scientists also said the oversight was ‘not good enough’, adding that the virus ‘spreads like wildfire’.  

The WHO analysis, which was reported by the Sunday Times, also found that the Brazilian Covid strain has been found in ten nations, six of which have not been added to the UK red list.

As well as South Africa and Brazil, nations which are also on the list include Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Rwanda and Botswana.

But of the 41 countries which the WHO’s report said the South African strain had spread to, 29 of them do not feature on Britain’s red list. 

Overall, it means arrivals from 35 counties were more infectious strains which could beat or limit the effect of the available coronavirus vaccines will be free to avoid the hotel scheme when they land in Britain.

Instead, they will be trusted to quarantine at home for ten days.

‘That’s really important for healthcare systems, even if we are having mild and asymptomatic infections, to prevent people going into hospital with Covid would have a major effect.’ 

Britain remains firmly on course to reach the target of vaccinating 15 million people by February 15, with latest figures revealing 12 million have got the jab so far.   

Another 549,078 people received their first dose of the coronavirus jab on Saturday and, at the current rate, Britain will reach its target three days early, on February 12. 

In total, 12,014,288 people have now had at least one dose of the vaccine, with  Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi revealing that the UK’s vaccine roll-out almost hit 1,000 jabs a minute yesterday. 

The minister also believes that the Government will have vaccinated all over-50s by May.

In an unprecedented move, iIllegal immigrants are being granted an ‘amnesty’ to come forward for the jabs in a bid to get as much vaccine coverage as possible. 

‘The moral in this is that everyone needs to get the jab, for everyone’s safety,’ a Whitehall source said last night.

Officials insist that illegal migrants will not be able to jump the queue for vaccines or use the scheme as a way to acquire other rights.

It will mean only that the Home Office takes no action if they register with a GP to be inoculated. No official count exists for the number of foreigners with ‘irregular status’ but some estimates put the figure as high as 1.3million.

‘Coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of immigration status,’ a Government spokesman said last night.

‘Those registered with a GP are being contacted at the earliest opportunity and we are working closely with partners and external  organisations to contact those who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are also offered the vaccine.’

All categories of illegal migrants will be guaranteed they will suffer no repercussions if they come forward, including those who entered Britain clandestinely, such as on boats crossing the Channel or in the back of lorries.

Other categories of irregular migrants will also be covered – for example overstayers who arrived legitimately as visitors or on short-term visas but failed to leave. Publicity campaigns will be mounted to encourage so-called ‘hard to reach groups’, including non-English speakers, to have the jab.

NHS trusts have been told there are to be ‘no immigration status checks’ on patients who come forward for vaccination. The same applies to anyone having a Covid test or treatment for the disease, the Mail has learnt.

In more positive news, coronavirus cases plummeted by 25 per cent on last week while daily Covid-related deaths fell by more than a third as the latest official figures suggest the third lockdown is curbing transmission of the virus.

Data published by the Department for Health today shows that another 15,845 cases were recorded in the UK, down by 25 per cent from 21,088 daily cases last Sunday.

The number of coronavirus-related deaths fell 36 per cent week-on-week, from 587 last Sunday down to 373 today, bringing demands for fewer than 1,000 cases per day ever closer.

WILL THE CURRENT VACCINES WORK AGAINST SOUTH AFRICAN COVID VARIANT? 

The South African variant of coronavirus, known as B.1.351, has mutations on its outer spike proteins that change the shape of the virus in a way that makes it look different to the body than older versions of the virus.

Because the immune system’s antibodies are so specific, any change in the part of the virus that they attach to – in this case the spikes – can affect how well they can do so.

Current vaccines have been developed using versions of the virus from a year ago, which didn’t have the mutations the South African variant does, so scientists are worried the immunity they create won’t be good enough to stop it.

Here’s what we know about the vaccines and the variant so far:

Oxford/AstraZeneca (Approved; Being used in the UK)

Research published in February claimed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to have a ‘minimal effect’ against the South African variant.

A study of 2,000 people by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg found that two doses of the jab may only offer 10-20 per cent protection against mild or moderate Covid-19.

Nobody in the test group developed severe Covid-19 but the researchers said this ‘could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk’. Participants’ average age was 31 and they were otherwise healthy. 

Scientists working on the vaccine said they still believe it will be protective. 

Oxford and AstraZeneca said they are already working on a booster jab targeted at the South African variant and that it will be ready by autumn.     

Pfizer/BioNTech (Approved; Being used in the UK)

Two studies suggest that Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine will protect against the South African variant, although its ability to neutralise the virus is lower.

One by Pfizer itself and the University of Texas found that the mutations had ‘small effects’ on its efficacy. In a lab study on the blood of 20 vaccine recipients they found a reduction in the numbers of working antibodies to tackle the variant, but it was still enough to destroy the virus, they said. 

Another study by New York University has made the same finding on 10 blood samples from people who had the jab. That team said there was a ‘partial resistance’ from the variant and that a booster should be made, but that it would still be more effective than past infection with another variant.

Pfizer is developing an updated version of its jab to tackle the variant. 

Moderna (Approved; Delivery expected in March)

Moderna said its vaccine ‘retains neutralizing activity’ in the face of the South African variant.

In a release in January the company said it had tested the jab on the blood of eight people who had received it and found that antibody levels were significantly lower when it was exposed to the South Africa variant, but it still worked.

It said: ‘A six-fold reduction in neutralizing [antibodies] was observed with the B.1.351 variant relative to prior variants. Despite this reduction, neutralizing levels with B.1.351 remain above levels that are expected to be protective.’

Moderna is working on a booster jab to tackle the South African variant.

Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (Awaiting approval; 30m doses)

Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has trialled its vaccine in South Africa and found it prevented 57 per cent of Covid cases.

This was the lowest efficacy the company saw in its global trials – in Latin America it was 66 per cent and in the US 72 per cent. These differences are likely in part due to the variants in circulation.

The vaccine was 85 per cent effective at stopping severe disease and 100 per cent effective at stopping death from Covid-19, even in South Africa where the variant is dominant, Janssen said.   

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WHY ARE SCIENTISTS SO SCARED OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.351

When and where was it discovered? 

Scientists first noticed in December 2020 that the variant, named B.1.351, was genetically different in a way that could change how it acts.

It was picked up through random genetic sampling of swabs submitted by people testing positive for the virus, and was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay, around Port Elizabeth.

Using a computer to analyse the genetic code of the virus – which is viewed as a sequence of letters that correspond to thousands of molecules called nucleotides – can help experts to see where the code has changed and how this affects the virus. 

What mutations did scientists find?

There are two key mutations on the South African variant that appear to give it an advantage over older versions of the virus – these are called N501Y and E484K.

Both are on the spike protein of the virus, which is a part of its outer shell that it uses to stick to cells inside the body, and which the immune system uses as a target.

They appear to make the virus spread faster and may give it the ability to slip past immune cells that have been made in response to a previous infection or a vaccine. 

What does N501Y do? 

N501Y changes the spike in a way which makes it better at binding to cells inside the body.

This means the viruses have a higher success rate when trying to enter cells when they get inside the body, meaning that it is more infectious and faster to spread.

This corresponds to a rise in the R rate of the virus, meaning each infected person passes it on to more others.

N501Y is also found in the Kent variant found in England, and the two Brazilian variants of concern – P.1. and P.2.

What does E484K do?

The E484K mutation found on the South African variant is more concerning because it tampers with the way immune cells latch onto the virus and destroy it.

Antibodies – substances made by the immune system – appear to be less able to recognise and attack viruses with the E484K mutation if they were made in response to a version of the virus that didn’t have the mutation.

Antibodies are extremely specific and can be outwitted by a virus that changes radically, even if it is essentially the same virus.

South African academics found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to the new variant. One researcher said it was ‘clear that we have a problem’.

Vaccine makers, however, have tried to reassure the public that their vaccines will still work well and will only be made slightly less effective by the variant. 

How many people in the UK have been infected with the variant?  

At least 105 Brits have been infected with this variant, according to Public Health England’s random sampling.

The number is likely to be far higher, however, because PHE has only picked up these cases by randomly scanning the genetics of around one in 10 of all positive Covid tests in the UK.

This suggests that there have been at least 1,050 cases between December and January 27.

Where else has it been found?

According to the PANGO Lineages website, the variant has been officially recorded in 31 other countries worldwide.  

The UK has had the second highest number of cases after South Africa itself.

But other nations where it has been found include South Korea, Sweden, France, Australia, Germany, Kenya, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Denmark, Belgium, USA, Netherlands, Mozambique, Ireland, Botswana, New Zealand, Finland, Spain and the French island territory Mayotte.

Will vaccines still work against the variant? 

So far, Pfizer and Moderna’s jabs appear only slightly less effective against the South African variant. 

Researchers took blood samples from vaccinated patients and exposed them to an engineered virus with the worrying E484K mutation found on the South African variant.

They found there was a noticeable reduction in the production of antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins made in the blood after vaccination or natural infection.

But it still made enough to hit the threshold required to kill the virus and to prevent serious illness, they believe.

There are still concerns about how effective a single dose of vaccine will be against the strain. So far Pfizer and Moderna’s studies have only looked at how people given two doses react to the South African variant. 

Studies into how well Oxford University/AstraZeneca‘s jab will work against the South African strain are still ongoing.

Johnson & Johnson actually trialled its jab in South Africa while the variant was circulating and confirmed that it blocked 57 per cent of coronavirus infections in South Africa, which meets the World Health Organization’s 50 per cent efficacy threshold. 

Don’t panic – Covid-19 injection will still keep you out of hospital even if you fall ill with South African variant, writes PROFESSOR HUGH PENNINGTON

A vaccine is not an impenetrable barrier in the body through which no virus can pass. It’s more like a superpower, which enables our immune systems to fight better, faster and stronger against an invader.

So the discovery that the Oxford-AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine for Covid-19 is less effective against some new variants of coronavirus than others is no cause for alarm. It’s to be expected.

Just like the heroes in a blockbuster movie, we’re simply going to have to adapt our new superpowers. 

News that the AZ jab has ‘limited efficacy’ against mild and moderate disease caused by the South African strain of the virus was treated yesterday in some quarters as a looming disaster.

Broadcaster and author Loyd Grossman receives the AstraZeneca vaccine at North Cotswold Hospital in Gloucestershire

Broadcaster and author Loyd Grossman receives the AstraZeneca vaccine at North Cotswold Hospital in Gloucestershire

It is not – and I say this not only as an academic with a lifetime’s experience in viruses and vaccines, but as an 82-year-old man who has had his first AZ injection.

This means I have a keen personal – as well as professional – interest in getting the facts straight.

Covid-19 attacks the body in two ways. It multiplies in the mouth, nose and throat, where it can exist without causing noticeable symptoms, yet spreads virulently. 

The microscopic viral particles are then breathed in and out on droplets of saliva and mucus.

It can also invade the rest of the body. In the most serious cases, it attacks the lungs, causing breathing difficulties that can be fatal. 

The discovery that the Oxford-AstraZeneca is less effective against some new variants of coronavirus than others is no cause for alarm, writes Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

The discovery that the Oxford-AstraZeneca is less effective against some new variants of coronavirus than others is no cause for alarm, writes Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

It can also affect the heart and other vital organs including the kidneys. There is also mounting evidence to suggest it sometimes attacks the brain.

It is in cases such as these that patients often require hospital treatment, in turn driving the terrible fatality figures and threatening to overwhelm the NHS. And, crucially, it is these cases that the AZ vaccine prevents – even in its South African variant.

In order to wipe out Covid altogether, we need the vaccine to protect against mild and asymptomatic cases too because they are most likely to spread the illness.

Once these milder cases are prevented, the ‘R’ number will drop – that is, infection rates will plummet. 

Tweaking the vaccine code in the laboratory, to ensure it works against the South African variant, ought not to be a major problem. I would expect the revised formula to be engineered within a week or so.

Of course, a whole series of logistical challenges exists beyond that – we have to acquire official approval and ratification, manufacture millions of new doses, then get them bottled and distributed.

A team of medical staff treat a patient with coronavirus at King's College Hospital in London

A team of medical staff treat a patient with coronavirus at King’s College Hospital in London

Pictured: A health worker prepares the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at the Mignot Hospital in Le Chesnay near Paris

Pictured: A health worker prepares the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at the Mignot Hospital in Le Chesnay near Paris

When news of the vaccine first broke, I set a simple benchmark. To be deemed a success, the jabs had to be more effective against Covid than the annual flu vaccines have been. That sets a high standard.

In most years, flu jabs prevent infection at least 50 per cent of the time, even though the disease is constantly mutating.

Covid jabs have far outstripped that target. It may take the world years to eradicate Covid fully. 

But we must not allow a small and entirely predictable setback to rattle our faith that life will soon be returning far closer to normal.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University



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