THOSE who have already had Covid are “probably immune” to the new mutant strain, the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer has said.
The variant, which emerged in Kent in September, is understood to be up to 74 per cent more infectious than the strain that was dominant last year.
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It’s also believed to be behind the recent surge in cases which forced the country into a third national lockdown to control the spread.
Scientists were concerned people who’ve already had Covid may struggle to fight off the new variant while questions were raised over the effectiveness of a vaccine.
But, speaking at Downing Street last night, Sir Patrick Vallance said it appeared people who had been previously affected still had protection.
He said: “What we know is that the 22 changes in the genetic code made the virus more transmissible, but as far as we can see it doesn’t make it hidden from the immune system so if you had an infection before, the evidence is that you probably neutralise this virus as well.
“The expectation is the same for the vaccine.”
However, he did warn it is possible the South African variant, first found in the UK in December, may be tougher for the immune system to fight.
He also said it may have some effect on vaccine effectiveness but is unlikely to “abolish” their effect.
Sir Vallance explained that a possible change in the variant’s shape “theoretically gives it a bit more risk of not being recognised” by the immune system.
“There is nothing yet to suggest that’s the case. This is being looked at very actively,” he said.
“It’s worth remembering that when a vaccine is given you don’t just make one antibody against one bit, you make lots of antibodies against lots of different bits, and so it’s unlikely that all of that will be escaped by any mutations.
“But we don’t know yet.
“At the moment, you’d say the most likely thing is that this wouldn’t abolish vaccine effect. It may have some overall effect on efficacy but we don’t know.”
It comes as Boris Johnson warned nearly 1.2 million Brits are infected with Covid.
Official data shows one in 50 people in England has the killer virus — and 26,467 are being treated for it in hospital.
However, in some areas of the UK, numbers testing positive are dramatically higher – including in London, where a whopping one in 30 had the virus between December 27 and January 2.
But on a brighter note, the PM said 1.3 million Brits have already been vaccinated — including a quarter of all over-80s.
He also revealed the first mass vaccination centres will open next week as part of a Covid jab blitz.
Mr Johnson has pledged to offer 13 million doses by the middle of February.
As part of a radical ramping-up of the immunisation programme, the first seven of 50 mass vaccination sites will start treating vulnerable patients.
Each mega-centre will deliver thousands of jabs a day.
At his Downing Street briefing yesterday, the PM, said: “By February 15, the NHS is committed to offering a vaccination to everyone in the top four priority groups including older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff and all those who are clinically extremely vulner-able.
“And to help us with meeting this target we already have 595 GP-led sites providing vaccines, with a further 180 coming on stream later this week.
“We have 107 hospital sites — with a further 100 later this week.
“So that is almost a thousand vaccination sites across the country by the end of this week
“And next week we will also have seven vaccination centres opening in places such as sports stadia and exhibition centres.”
PREVENT NINE IN TEN DEATHS
The Nightingale hospital at London’s ExCel centre, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, Epsom racecourse in Surrey and Ashton Gate football stadium in Bristol are all expected to be among the first sites.
Officials hope immunising the most vulnerable will prevent around nine in ten Covid deaths.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty defended the decision to delay the second jab dose for up to 12 weeks.
He said: “By extending the gap, we are going to over the next three months be able to essentially double the number of people who can be vaccinated.”
He said older Brits will still be vaccinated ahead of teachers — because they are at greater risk of dying.
The jabs rollout continued as grim figures showed a record high of infections.
The UK daily toll yesterday was 60,916 confirmed cases. And the number of Covid patients in English hospitals has rocketed by a fifth in a week, to 26,467.
Office for National Statistics figures showed that nearly 1.2 million people in private households in England had Covid between December 27 and January 2 — equivalent to around 2.06 per cent of the population.
A further 830 Covid deaths yesterday took the UK total to 76,305.
One in 50 test positive in England
MORE than one million people in England had Covid-19 between December 27 and January 2, according to new figures published tonight by the Office for National Statistics.
That’s the equivalent of around 2.06 per cent of the entire population, or one in 50 people.
- In London, one in 30 people had Covid-19 between December 27 and January 2, according to the ONS. Elsewhere, the figures are:
- One in 45 in the south-east
- One in 45 in the East of England
- One in 45 in the north-west
- One in 60 in the north-east
- One in 65 in West Midlands
- One in 65 in Yorkshire
- One in 135 in the south-west
Mr Johnson defended the latest national lockdown measures, saying: “I believe that when everybody looks at the position, people understand overwhelmingly that we have no choice.
“When the Office for National Statistics is telling us that more than two per cent of the population is now infected — that’s over one million people in England.
“And when we have reported another 60,000 new cases, and when the number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40 per cent higher than at the first peak in April.
“I think obviously everybody — you all — want to be sure that we in government are now using every second of this lockdown to put that invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable in the form of vaccination and so to begin to bring this crisis to an end.”
Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director for Public Health England, said: “The rapid rise in cases is highly concerning and will sadly mean yet more pressure on our health services in the depths of winter.
“That is why if we can, we must stay at home, reduce contacts and do everything possible to break the spread of this virus.”
But last night the PM told Tory MPs at a virtual meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee that he hopes to ease lockdown by the spring “before the tulip season ends, before the daffodil season even ends”.