UK faces more restrictions if South African Covid variant continues to spread, SAGE scientist warns

Britain could face further lockdown restrictions if the South African Covid variant becomes more widespread, a SAGE scientist warned today.

A study on Sunday found the Oxford University jab had ‘minimal effect’ in preventing mild disease caused by the strain, suggesting vaccinated people may still be able to catch and spread it.

Professor Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert at Warwick University and member of SAGE, said the finding 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.’ 

Despite the concerning new finding, 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. 

And UK ministers have urged Brits to keep faith in the British-made vaccine. Health minister Edward Argar 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.

The comments were echoed by vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi last night, who said preventing severe disease was the ‘vitally important’ factor for the vaccines. 

So far there have only been 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant in Britain, 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. 

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

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

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

Government sources said last night that 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.  

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.

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’.

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

The study 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.

South Africa has announced 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.

‘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.’

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’. 

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.

‘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.’  


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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