South African Covid variant unlikely to become dominant in UK, says Prof Van-Tam

8 February 2021, 20:11 | Updated: 8 February 2021, 20:34

By Megan White

The South African strain of the coronavirus is unlikely to become dominant in the UK over the coming months, the deputy chief medical officer for England has said.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said that unlike the strain which emerged last year in Kent, the South African mutation did not enjoy a "transmissibility advantage" over other variants.

Speaking at a No 10 news briefing, he said he believed it was "likely" that the existing vaccines would be effective in preventing serious illness in people who became infected with the new South African strain.

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But he suggested that people in high risk groups may need booster jabs - either annually or biennially - as the vaccines were updated to cope with new mutations of the virus.

His comments came after Boris Johnson said he is "very confident" in all the vaccines available in the UK amid concerns over the Oxford jab's efficacy against the strain.

South Africa has suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after a small trial among young adults found that there was a reduced level of protection against infection and mild disease.

But Prof Van-Tam said the findings should not be a cause for concern in the UK where - unlike South Africa - the Kent variant was now the dominant strain.

"Early data ... does not suggest the South African variant has a distinct transmissibility advantage over our current virus," he said.

"Because of that there is no reason to think that the South African variant will catch up or overtake our current virus in the next few months.

"Our immediate threat is from our current virus and there is now plenty of evidence that the vaccines that we are deploying are effective against our current virus."

He said a number of vaccine manufacturers - including Pfizer - had released data suggesting they still had a "substantial effect" in reducing serious illness from the South African variant and he believed the same was likely to be the case for the AstraZeneca version.

If the South African variant did become more prevalent in the UK, he said people in high risk groups could be given an updated vaccine - with only a single shot likely to be required.

"You can be re-vaccinated and we are taking a lot of steps behind the scenes to ensure that we can be in that position," he said.

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

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.

"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."

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."