As the health minister says he is ‘incredibly worried’ he posed concerns about possible effects on vaccines
After signs that Covid vaccines may not protect against a new strain of the virus that has appeared in South Africa, scientists are calling for calm.
Experts say there is no need to panic, while Health Minister Matt Hancock has said that he is very worried about the new Sars-Cov-2 variant that has emerged in South Africa and is considered to be highly transmissible, such as the variant first seen in Kent.
In the United Kingdom, there have already been several reports of infection with the South African strain.
Hancock said on BBC Radio 4’s “I’m incredibly concerned about the South African variant,” show, “Today” “That’s why we’ve taken the action we have to restrict all flights out of South Africa and travel out of South Africa and insist that anyone who has been to South Africa isolate themselves. This is a very, very significant problem.”
After an interview on Times Radio over the weekend with Sir John Bell, the government life sciences champion and one of the main figures behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that the NHS has just started to use, Hancock expressed his concern.
Bell said he is not concerned about the efficacy of the vaccine against the variant that has arisen in Kent and is rapidly spreading across the United Kingdom.
“I don’t know about the South African strain. There’s a big question mark about it.”I’m not sure of the strain in South Africa. There’s a big question mark about it.
To decide if the vaccine would protect against them, teams at Oxford researched both versions.
“The real question is whether the vaccines will be sufficient,” said Bell. In order to avoid disease, they performed much better than they expected, so it’s impossible that any mutations in the virus would wipe out a vaccine entirely, but the viruses were modified for survival, he said.
“We are now in a cat-and-mouse game because these are not the only two variants we will see,” he said.
Experts agree that variations in the virus are to be predicted, but that the vaccines are likely to still function and avoid severe illness for people infected with variants. Even so, they are closely monitoring developments in South Africa.
“Viruses mutate and new strains will emerge,” said Prof. James Naismith, director of the Institute for Rosalind Franklin. There are a variety of modifications to the so-called South African strain, and scientists are working hard to understand their relevance.
Some of the changes are very important, and scientists pay careful attention to them. We do not yet know enough to say more than that.’
Ravi Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Professor at KwaZulu-Natal University in South Africa, looked at how infectivity is increased by virus mutations. There is a need to strike a balance, he said, “between warning people about something that could be important and stoking panic, which is what I think is happening.”
It is important to step up surveillance and control measures, he said, and the South African variant, like the Kent variant, has possibly already spread to many countries that do not have the kind of extensive genetic sequencing available in the U.K. South Africa as well.
But no one can presume, he said, that vaccines are still at risk.
“Vaccines are really vital in this fight. We need to get them out as quickly as possible. We think they will still be effective,” he said.
Naismith said that nobody would be helped by an atmosphere of terror. I will say to the general public, consider our human existence.
Many of us like a good scare, and horror movies are part of human culture, which means there is a lot of publicity about stuff like this. A barrage of nightmare scenarios about this new version, however, does little but build uncertainty because so little is understood and right now we can do little about it, he said.