Vaccine fears as South African coronavirus variant hits Scotland

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SCOTLAND has at least three identified cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa which it is feared is more resistant to the Covid vaccine, the has learned.

Confirmation that the variant has arrived in Scotland came after 77 cases were confirmed in the UK and linked to travellers arriving in the country, rather than community transmission.

The details emerged as the health secretary said there was evidence the South African variant “although we are not sure of this data..a reduces by about 50% the vaccine efficacy.”

Matt Hancock made the remark during a webinar with business leaders and travel agents on Tuesday.

The South Africa variant has been found in at least 20 other countries, including the UK.

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It has been confirmed that there are also nine cases of the Brazil variant had been found in the UK. The understands none of the nine are in Scotland.

The health secretary Matt Hancock has warned that there may be other variants in countries that have not been picked up because they do not have the infrastructure to spot them.

Asked if that meant there should be a blanket ban on travel to the UK he said: “While we do all the scientific work internationally, we heave to have a precuationary principal.

“We have introduced pre-departure testing and introduced checks to check that that has happened.

“But it is absolutely vital that we protect this country from a new variant that may not be as well dealt with by the vaccine. We cannot risk the progress we have made.”

Ministers are expected to meet this week to discuss a proposal to require people arriving in the UK to pay to quarantine in a designated hotel to ensure they are following the rules on self-isolating.

Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary has urged Boris Johnson to introduce an “effective” border testing and quarantining regime, arguing: “Nobody could say that the situation at our borders is satisfactory.”

New rules requiring UK arrivals to have negative Covid test before departure came in just a week ago.

Mr Thomas-Symonds said the country needed a “comprehensive system and plan from the Government and stop moving from one chaotic situation to another”.

The Government, he said, “was an international outlier” in its approach to travel protection as he called on it to “get a grip” after acting “too slowly”, and indicated his support for the use of hotels.

The health secretary said yesterday that the government would like to see more evidence about the new variants that have been seen abroad, accepting that the two variants “we are particularly concerned about” had eminated from South Africa and Brazil and that “might have a lower response” to the Covid vaccine.

Trials are underway in South Africa to check how well the Oxford vaccine responds to new strain.

Oxford professor Anthony Harnden, a representative of the UK’s vaccine advisory committee that advises the government, said the South African and Brazilian variants were of concern because Covid-19 vaccines may not be effective against them.

Professor Harnden of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said: “The new variants abroad are a real worry. The South African and the Brazilian Amazonian ones, there are hints that there will be vaccine escape,” he said, adding that new variants would keep appearing around the world.

He added: “But I think we have to get used to this.

“We are living in a world where coronavirus is so prevalent and rapidly mutating there are going to be new variants that pop up in all sorts of different countries.

“We may well be in a situation where we have to have an annual coronavirus vaccine much like we do with the flu vaccine, but the public should be reassured that these technologies are relatively easy to edit and tweak, so once we find strains that are predominant, the vaccines can be altered.”

According data on January 21, there were 44 confirmed cases of the South African variant, and 27 were classed as “probable”. The understands that three of the Scottish cases were identified as “confirmed”.

Thirteen days earlier the UK had detected just two people with the South African variant – one in London and the other in the north west of England. Both were contacts of people who travelled to South Africa.

An additional six UK cases were reported on Sunday by the UK Government.

The UK has the highest death toll in Europe from Covid-19, at close to 100,000, and has been in lockdown for most of January with hospitals struggling to cope with record numbers of seriously ill patients.

The government has attributed the high transmission rates that led it to impose the lockdown in part to a highly contagious variant first identified in southeast England and now prevalent in many areas.

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Official figures showed a further 610 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Sunday.

Over the past seven days in Scotland there have been 9,868 cases detected following a test, with 1,195 confirmed on Sunday. There have been 5,706 deaths of people who tested positive for Covid-19.

And Mr Hancock said he had a “high degree of confidence” that lockdown restrictions would eventually be lifted in time for the summer.

“I hope we have a great British summer. The number of cases are starting to come down but there’s a long time between now and then,” he said.

In the leaked webinar, the health secretary added: “We’re testing that and we’ve got some of the South African variant in Porton Down, and we’re testing it.

“We’ve got a clinical trial in South Africa to check that the AstraZeneca vaccine works.

“Nevertheless, if we vaccinated the population, and then you got in a new variant that evaded the vaccine, then we’d be back to square one.”

Asked about Mr Hancock’s comments at Friday’s Downing Street news conference, the government’s chief scientific adviser said it was too early to know if the South African variant was more resistant to COVID-19 vaccine Sir Patrick Vallance did warn that the variants in South Africa and Brazil might “have certain features which means they might be less susceptible to vaccines”.

But he said “there is no evidence” that the two variants have transmission advantages over those already in the UK and so having cases here doesn’t mean “they will take off”.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Surveillance to track new variants of the virus continues through the work of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium.”

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