VACCINES could be 30% less effective against the South African strain of Covid, new Sage analysis has warned.
Concerns have been raised that the variant can in fact decrease the number of antibodies by four times.
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This means people who have had the vaccine, as well as those who’d been infected with previous strains, are more vulnerable to the variant than to other variants previously tested.
“Overall, evidence from clinical trials suggests a modest decrease in vaccine efficacy against B.1.351 infection,” analysis from the government’s scientific advisors states.
“It is not clear what the implications are for protection from severe disease.”
What is known, is that strain’s impact on antibodies translated into a potential 30% drop in vaccine efficacy.
SAGE’s 83rd meeting, held on March 11, noted that prevalence of “variants of concern”, like the B.1.351 strain which originated in South Africa, was increasing in some parts of Europe.
While the strain was now responsible for “almost all” Covid-19 cases in South Africa, case numbers remained low outside the country.
Measures that had been put in place for returning travellers reduce the risk of importation, the summary noted, as well as onward transmission of the variants in the UK.
Despite this, there were a significant number of people who were exempt from these measures, which meant there was still a risk of the strain spreading.
News of the variant’s decreased susceptibility to the vaccine comes as surge testing is being deployed in parts of London to stop the spread of the strain.
More cases of the mutated virus have been found in Southwark (SE5) and Harrow (HA2 and HA3).
People living in these spots should get a Covid test when they are offered it – regardless of if they have symptoms.
Anyone who has symptoms should book a free test online or by phone to get tested at a testing site or have a testing kit sent to them at home.
A Department of Health statement said: “The increased testing is being introduced in addition to existing extensive testing and, in combination with the public following current lockdown rules and Hands Face Space advice, will help to monitor and suppress the spread of the virus.
“Positive cases will be sequenced for genomic data to help increase our understanding of Covid-19 variants and their spread within these areas.
“Enhanced contact tracing will be used for individuals testing positive with a variant of concern.
“This is where contact tracers look back over an extended period in order to determine the route of transmission.”
Health officials said mass testing would help it to closely monitor any community spread of the new variant, and restrict further transmission.
Testing doesn’t currently detect whether someone has the South African strain but they will be sent to the lab to be sequenced to identify any more cases of the particular strand in the area.
Scientists have warned the mutation, named 501YV2, is feared to be at least 50 per cent more contagious, with hundreds more undetected cases thought to be in the country.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of SAGE, said: “This variant is identified through genetic sequencing and we sequence between five per cent and 10 per cent of all cases, so you can immediately tell from that that we have a big under-estimation of the number of cases.
“We would expect we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg of community transmission.”
There is not yet any evidence to suggest that symptoms differ from the three Covid-19 symptoms already highlighted by the NHS.
The three main coronavirus symptoms are a new persistent cough, a high temperature and a loss of taste and smell (anosmia).