The Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccines are now in circulation in the UK, bringing with them the prospect of normality by the end of 2021. But with coronavirus variants circulating in South Africa and the UK, what is the effectiveness of the vaccines on these strains?
The new coronavirus strain in the UK was first identified in Kent at the beginning of December, believed by experts to have increased infectiousness.
South Africa was then placed into lockdown last week after President Cyril Ramaphosa said the new variant, known as 501.V2, appeared to be “more contagious” than the virus that circulated during the first wave.
And on December 23, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed two cases of the South African strain had been identified in the UK.
Both virus variants have raised concerns over the effectiveness of the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines, but Sir John Bell, regius professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, has said they’re unlikely to turn off the effects of the vaccines.
Speaking to Times Radio, he revealed the Oxford University team was still assessing whether current vaccines could tackle the new variants, but that there was “room to manoeuvre” because the vaccines worked “much better than any of us thought they were going to”.
He continued: “I think it’s unlikely that these mutations will turn off the effects of vaccines entirely – I think they’ll still have a residual effect.”
And he added it was “perfectly possible” to make new vaccines in a matter of weeks if necessary.
“It might take a month, or six weeks, to get a new vaccine, so everybody should stay calm. It’s going to be fine,” he said.
“But we’re now in a game of cat and mouse, because these are not the only two variants we’re going to see. We’re going to see lots of variants.”
Sir John also revealed he was more concerned about the South African strain than the UK one “by some margin”.
He explained the strain had mutated in the part of the virus which allows antibodies to stick to it.
The new coronavirus strain found in the UK has “substantially higher transmissibility” than other variants and mostly affects those under the age of 20, according to a new study.
The new variant has been found to increase the reproduction or ‘R’ number by between 0.4 and 0.7.
If the number is above 1.0 it means each person with the virus will pass it on to more than one other person.
The UK’s latest R number has been estimated at between 1.1 and 1.3.
Today, Hancock said he is “very worried” about the South African variant which has been detected in the UK, and urged the country to keep an “eagle eye” on it.
The South African variant is deemed to be more transmissible than the one in the UK.
To stop the spread of the South African variant, flights to the UK from the country have been banned.
“I am very worried about the new South African variant that we’ve seen.” Mr Hancock told ITV News.
“That’s why we’ve taken the very robust action to stop flights from South Africa.
“My concern is that it seems even more easy to transmit than the new variant we’ve seen here [in the UK].
“Obviously, it’s been a huge challenge controlling the new variant that we’ve seen in the UK.”
There have still only been two cases of the South African variant documented in the UK.