PM 'very confident' in Covid vaccines amid South African variant concerns

8 February 2021, 16:18 | Updated: 8 February 2021, 17:57

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Boris Johnson has said he is "very confident" in all the vaccines available in the UK amid concerns over the Oxford jab's efficacy against the South African Covid strain.

The prime minister was responding to concerns that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the South African coronavirus variant.

It comes after a yet-to-be peer-reviewed study found the drug may not be able to prevent mild or moderate illness caused by the South African strain, with Oxford jabs being paused in the southern hemisphere nation.

During a visit to a Covid-19 test manufacturing facility in Derby, Mr Johnson insisted that all vaccines being used provide "a high degree of protection against serious illness and death".

"We're very confident in all the vaccines that we're using," he told reporters.

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"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.

"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."

During a Downing Street press briefing on Monday, deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the South African variant of coronavirus does not have a "transmissibility advantage" over the dominant UK strain.

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He said the AstraZeneca vaccine was still "rather likely" to have an effect on "serious disease" among people who contract the South African strain.

Prof Van-Tam said that if the variant did become more prevalent in the UK, people in high-risk groups may need annual or biennial booster jabs.

"Just as variations to the virus were inevitable it's almost inevitable that at some point we will need variations to the vaccine. This is not a big fright, it is not a big surprise," he said.

Prof Van-Tam said the "most likely scenario" is that the South African variant will not become dominant in the coming months.

Asked about keeping the variant suppressed, he said: "We have small numbers of the South African variant in the UK at the present time.

"And as I've said, I'm not seeing, and the early modelling data do not suggest, a transmissibility advantage for this virus.

"So, that being the case, it's not going to kind of overrun or overtake the current B1.1.7 virus in the next few months, or that is the most likely scenario, that it won't happen.

"I don't think that this is something that we should be concerned about right at this point in time, and I agree with you that the stories and the headlines around variant viruses and vaccines are a bit scary. And I wish they weren't."

Prof Van-Tam said his work recently had been "thinking over the horizon" on preparations for a "a long-term resilient vaccine-orientated solution", adding: "And that includes the potential for variant vaccines for the autumn."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi urged the British public to keep the faith in the jab amid concerns.

Mr Zahawi 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."

Mr Johnson also refused to rule out that the South African Covid strain could lead to a delay in easing restrictions if it reduces the Oxford jab's effect on transmissibility.

Pressed on the issue, he 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."

The prime minister then suggested border controls could play a greater role against new coronavirus variants when infection rates are further reduced.

Asked about introducing tougher measures, he told reporters: "They are most effective, border controls, when you've got the rate of infection down in your country.

"And at the moment we've greatly reduced the rate of infection from the peak, where it was a few weeks ago, but it's still extremely high and for border controls really to make that final difference so you can isolate new variants as they come in, you need to have infections really much lower so you can track them as they spread.

"Don't forget, we in the UK are capable of seeing variants arise here, just in the UK, the Kent variant arose here, but that doesn't mean we're not going to be relying very much on border controls as we get the rates of infection down overall."

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