BORIS Johnson has refused to rule out making lockdown longer if the South African variant continues to spread.
The Prime Minister was speaking after a study found the Oxford vaccine offers minimal protection in preventing mild disease caused by the strain.
He today said vaccines are “remain of massive benefit to our country” but failed to dismiss extending the current restrictions.
It comes after a top scientist also warned that lockdown could be extended as “it’s very possible” the mutated strain is already widespread in the UK.
Dr Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert at Warwick University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “surge testing” taking place in certain areas in England “really needs to be effective” to halt transmission.
But he warned that “sadly we may be in a similar situation to the Kent variant” which eventually spread across the whole of the UK.
“The fact we’re starting to see cases in the hundreds, albeit in the low hundreds, means that unless we’ve really got on top of this quickly, I would expect we could see quite a few more cases coming over the next few weeks and possibly quite a little bit more widespread, so it’s a real concern,” he said.
It comes as:
- A Covid jab which can beat the South African variant could be ready as soon as Autumn, scientists say
- Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi assured Brits that the Oxford jab would still prevent deaths
- However a study suggests it was less effective against mild disease caused by the strain
- “Surge” testing is currently underway in twelve areas of the UK where the variant has been detected in a bid to contain the spread
- The number of people in the UK who have received a first dose of a vaccine passed the 12 million mark
Dr Tildesley added: “If that is the case and actually people can still get infected and still pass on the infection with the South African variant, and of course if it does become widespread across the country, then that has significant implications.
“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.”
The PM was pressed on whether lifting lockdown restrictions may need to be delayed following the study on the Oxford jab’s effectiveness.
Speaking during a visit to a Covid test manufacturing facility in Derby today, he said: “We’re very confident in all the vaccines that we’re using.
“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.”
Another leading expert warned that the number of cases of the variant was “probably here in dramatically more numbers” than had been found.
Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme: “There’s a lot more of it about and it will probably spread and cause difficulties over the next few months.”
Meanwhile, officials have identified an additional 42 South African coronavirus variant cases as a result of door-to-door “surge testing”.
Asked about the latest case figures on BBC Breakfast today, Edward Argar said: “147 is the latest figure I have.
“So, it’s by no means the dominant variant in the UK – that’s the historic variant we’ve had for a long time – and the Kent variant.
“It’s a very small number but it’s still something we quite rightly have got to keep a very close eye on.
“Hence that ‘surge testing’ to track down those cases of it and make sure people who have this variant self-isolate and don’t transmit it further.”
Eleven new cases of the South African variant with no links to travel were detected in eight postcodes across England.
Scientists have warned the mutation, named 501YV2, is feared to be at least 50 per cent more contagious, with hundreds more undetected cases thought to be in the country.
A major door-to-door testing blitz on up to 350,000 people was launched last Tuesday in a fightback against the new strains in hotspot areas.
Testing of around 10,000 people in Maidstone, Kent, was completed on Thursday night.
While in Surrey, testing in Woking, Egham and Thorpe, were due to get under way on Saturday.
Three new areas were added to the surge testing locations over the weekend – Sefton in Merseyside, parts of Bristol and South Gloucestershire, as well as Worcestershire.
Health officials are scrambling to prevent the surge of the South Africa strain, as it is feared that it could reduce the efficacy of vaccines.
The Department for Health and Social Care has said more areas will have additional testing made available to control the spread of Covid-19 variants.
It comes as reports Brits may need a third Covid jab this year amid concerns about the Oxford vaccine’s effectiveness against the South African variant.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was forced to defend the vaccine after a new study in South Africa found it was not effective at preventing mild illness caused by the more infectious mutation.
South Africa has suspended the rollout of the British-designed vaccine to healthcare staff following the results, which have yet to be peer reviewed.
Mr Zahawi urged the public to keep faith with the Oxford jab as scientists working on the vaccine raised the prospect of having a booster dose available by the autumn.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the minister said: “While it is right and necessary to prepare for the deployment of an updated vaccine, we can take confidence from the current roll out and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease.
“We need to be aware that even where a vaccine has reduced efficacy in preventing infection there may still be good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death. This is vitally important for protecting the healthcare system.”
Scientists agreed more research is required into the level of protection the Oxford vaccine affords against the South African variant but some expressed concern over the preliminary findings from the southern hemisphere.
AstraZeneca said on Sunday the fact the study into the E484K mutation involved 2,000 people who were mostly young and healthy meant it had “not been able to properly ascertain” whether it prevented against severe illness and hospital admission.
But the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant said it believed “our vaccine will still protect against severe disease” as the neutralising antibody activity is “equivalent to other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease”.
Professor Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford vaccine’s lead researcher, said her team was working on having an adapted version of their jab that could tackle the South Africa mutation – of which cases have been found in England – “available for the autumn”.
She said: “This year we expect to show that the new version of the vaccine will generate antibodies that recognise the new variant. Then it will be very much like working on flu vaccines. It looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”
FOLLOW UP JABS
Mr Zahawi said he and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, agreed there was likely to be a follow-up jab programme later in the year.
“We see very much probably an annual or booster in the autumn and then an annual (jab), in the way we do with flu vaccinations where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, rapidly produce a variant of vaccine and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
The Government’s announcement that it had secured 20 million more rapid-result coronavirus tests signalled that the Prime Minister – due to set out his road map for easing restrictions later this month – could be preparing to relax lockdown rules in some settings as daily Covid deaths fell to their lowest level in weeks.
Figures showed that a further 373 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Sunday, bringing the UK total to 112,465.
The lateral flow antigen tests, which can return results in under 30 minutes, are the first British-made tests to be validated by Public Health England in the laboratory and will be deployed to test NHS and care home staff, as well as in schools, universities, and for key workers.
But Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said the impact of Covid was likely to be felt at large gatherings long after lockdown was over.
He told Times Radio: “I can’t see us suddenly having another Cheltenham Festival with no regulations again, I can’t see us having massive weddings with people coming from all over the world.
“I think for the next few years those days are gone.”