Brazilian Covid strain 'real cause for concern', Professor Neil Ferguson tells LBC

16 January 2021, 12:58 | Updated: 17 January 2021, 08:47

By Megan White

The Brazilian Covid strain is a "real cause for concern", leading epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson has told LBC, after a travel ban from the country and 15 others was put in place.

Prof Ferguson told Matt Frei that the new strain could affect the efficacy of vaccines and may also affect the ability of people who have already had the virus to fight it off.

He also said that although the travel ban is "going to have a bigger chance" at stopping the strain from entering the UK, it is "not going to be foolproof."

Read more: Brazil Covid strain: What is the new variant? Have flights been stopped?

Prof Ferguson spoke after travel to the UK from Brazil, Portugal and 14 other countries - mostly in South America - was banned amid fears the new Covid strain could be more infectious than other strains.

He told Matt Frei: "There are real causes for concern about one of the Brazilian variants.

"What we've seen with this virus in recent months, both with the UK variant and the South African variant and this one Brazilian variant is completely independent strains of the virus get the same changes, mutate in the same way.

"That's indicative that the virus is adapting - just by random chance - but is adopting the same path because it gives the virus an advantage.

"One of the changes, Position 501 and the spike protein we have in this country, and it probably is associated with greater transmissibility.

"There is a change to the virus seen in Brazil, Position 484, which we fear may significantly affect the ability of pre-existing immunity in people who have been infected in the past from fighting off that new strain, it may affect the efficacy of vaccines.

"So it really is a threat - we don't know the details yet, the experiments are still being done."

He added: "It is a real and present danger, and so it demands a response.

"What we've learned is if you're going to impose these kinds of measures, they have to be sufficiently stringent to have a chance of working.

"So I think what the Government have done is going to have a bigger chance - it's not going to be foolproof, this strain may still get in, those mutations may arise in the virus we see in the UK - but it will delay things, and right now, delaying things is critical as we vaccinate as many people as possible."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the travel ban on Thursday in an attempt to reduce the potential spread of the variant.

He said travel from Portugal was being suspended because of its "strong travel links with Brazil", but there will be an exemption for hauliers travelling from Portugal to allow the transport of essential goods.

Mr Shapps also said there is an exemption for British and Irish nationals with residence rights, but that they must self-isolate for 10 days along with their households.

Scientists analysing the Brazilian variant believe the mutations it shares with the new South African strain seem to be associated with a rapid increase in cases in locations where previous attack rates are thought to be very high.

On Friday, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would close all travel corridors from Monday to "protect against the risk of as yet unidentified new strains" of coronavirus as the global death toll from Covid passed two million.

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference that anyone flying into the country from overseas will have to show proof of a negative Covid test before setting off.

"It's precisely because we have the hope of that vaccine and the risk of new strains coming from overseas that we must take additional steps now to stop those strains from entering the country," he said.

"Yesterday we announced that we're banning flights from South America and Portugal, and to protect us against the risk from as-yet-unidentified strains we will also temporarily close all travel corridors from 0400 on Monday."

People arriving in the UK from a destination with a travel corridor are currently exempt from the 10-day quarantine requirement.

The new policy means arrivals from every destination will need to self-isolate for 10 days, or receive a negative result from a coronavirus test taken at least five days after they enter the UK.

Public Health England said a total of 35 genomically confirmed and 12 genomically probable cases of the Covid-19 variant which originated in South Africa have been identified in the UK as of January 14.

Two variants of interest have also been identified in Brazil; the first has a small number of mutations and eight genomically confirmed cases of this variant have been identified in the UK, while the second, which has been detected in Manaus and travellers arriving in Japan, has not been detected in the UK.