South African variant 'NOT reason for alarm', Oxford scientist says

South African variant is ‘NOT a reason for alarm’: Lead expert behind Oxford Covid jab trial says ‘we’re going to be fine’ because the vaccine should still prevent hospitalisations and deaths and will make disease no different to a cold

  • Professor Andrew Pollard said results on variant were not ‘any reason for alarm’
  • Claimed jab effect on deaths, hospital rates unaffected by South African strain
  • ‘We’re going to be fine in the future in the pandemic,’ the Oxford expert claimed

Results suggesting the Oxford University Covid vaccine doesn’t stop people falling mildly unwell with the South African variant are not a ‘reason for alarm’, the lead scientist behind trials of the jab said today.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, hinted that evidence from Oxford’s own human trials in South Africa strongly indicated the vaccine still prevents serious illness and death against the new strain. 

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘As long as we have enough immunity to prevent severe disease, hospitalisations and death, then we’re going to be fine in the future in the pandemic.’  

A small study in Johannesburg on Sunday showed Oxford’s jab may not stop everyone from falling unwell. The finding caused widespread panic because it suggests vaccinated people can still pick up and transmit the disease. 

But Professor Pollard urged people not to lose sight of the main goal of vaccines, which is to bring hospital and fatality rates down to manageable levels so that lockdowns can be eased.

He said new variants could become a staple in the future, but so long as they only cause mild illness then they will be no different to ‘most of the viruses that cause colds every winter’.

His comments were echoed by Professor David Heymann, a top epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who said today people were going to have to ‘learn to live with’ Covid being an endemic illness.

Professor Andrew Pollard (receiving his Covid vaccine last month), director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said results suggesting the Oxford University Covid vaccine doesn’t stop people falling mildly unwell with the South African variant were ‘expected’

The three Covid variants causing international alarm emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil

‘Surge testing’ has been ordered in several areas to tackle the South African and Kent variant of coronavirus. Parts of Manchester have now been added to the list

Almost 12.5million have already received their first dose of vaccine and the health service is administering 450,000 on average every day

Pressed on the findings from Sunday, Professor Pollard told the BBC: ‘I think, in many ways, it’s exactly what we would have expected, because the virus is introducing mutations, as we’ve discussed before, to allow it to still transmit in populations where there’s some immunity.

‘And we already knew in South Africa that the virus was able to cause mild infections in people who were infected earlier last year.

Britain could be trapped in coronavirus lockdown cycles for ‘several years’ as it’s forced to wrestle with new variants that could scupper vaccines, top scientists have warned. 

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, an infectious disease expert at the University of St Andrews and member of SAGE, said the emergence of potentially jab-resistant strains means the UK could be stuck in a pattern of ‘control and release for a long time to come’.

Evidence suggests the Oxford University vaccine – the main weapon in Britain’s arsenal to combat the virus –  does not stop people falling ill with the South African variant, which is feared to be spreading in the community already. But No10’s top scientific advisers believe it still protects against severe illness and death.

Professor Boyd and several other prominent SAGE members have warned reopening the current shutdown too early could risk allowing new, equally concerning variants to spawn.

Mutations randomly happen as viruses spread but most changes never change the way it looks or behaves. Very high transmission gives the virus more opportunity to mutate and, therefore, drives up the risk that one of the alterations could change the course of the disease. 

Professor Boyd told The Times: ‘It stands to reason that the more people there are in the population with infections — the prevalence — the more virus that is replicating and the more chance there is of even highly improbable mutations happening.’ 

He warned even if Britain gets on top of the South African strain, there will be more concerning ones down the line. He added: ‘My suspicion is that we will experience a damped oscillation of control-release for a long time to come — perhaps several years.’ 

Professor Graham Medley, another SAGE member who is an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the newspaper that ‘everything works better’ when there is lower prevalence, adding that the emergence of new variants ‘strengthens that case’.

‘So that is not surprising then that with vaccines, also with mild infection, it’s going to be possible to see that.

‘So, in a way the study in South Africa absolutely confirms what we understand about the biology – that the virus has to transmit between people to survive. 

‘It has to mutate to do that. And it’s done that in South Africa already. And that will affect mild disease in people who’ve been vaccinated.’

He hinted that Oxford’s own trials in South Africa had shown the vaccine is effective at preventing hospitalisations and deaths.  

‘The really important point though is that all vaccines, everywhere in the world where they’ve been tested, are still preventing severe disease and death.

‘And I think that is perhaps the clue to the future here, that we are going to see new variants arise and they will spread in the population, like most of the viruses that cause colds every winter.

‘But, as long as we have enough immunity to prevent severe disease, hospitalisations and death, then we’re going to be fine in the future in the pandemic.’

In a separate interview with the Today programme, Professor Heymann was asked if people were going to have to ‘learn to live with’ coronavirus circulating.  

He said: ‘It certainly seems like that in the shorter term, and probably in the long term as well.

‘Most experts believe that this disease is now becoming endemic, but the good thing is that we have many tools including vaccines with which we can deal with this virus.’

Drawing a comparison with the spread of HIV/Aids, he added: ‘We’ve learned to live with it, as we’ll learn to live with this infection as well.’

But despite Professor Pollard and Professor Heymann’s calls for calm, a top SAGE scientist warned today that Britain could be trapped in coronavirus lockdown cycles for ‘several years’ as it’s forced to wrestle with new variants.

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, an infectious disease expert at the University of St Andrews, said the emergence of potentially jab-resistant strains means the UK could be stuck in a pattern of ‘control and release for a long time to come’.

Evidence suggests the Oxford University vaccine – the main weapon in Britain’s arsenal to combat the virus –  does not stop people falling ill with the South African variant, which is feared to be spreading in the community already. 

Professor Boyd and several other prominent SAGE members have warned reopening the current shutdown too early could risk allowing new, equally concerning variants to spawn.

Mutations randomly happen as viruses spread but most changes never change the way it looks or behaves. Very high transmission gives the virus more opportunity to mutate and, therefore, drives up the risk that one of the alterations could change the course of the disease. 

Professor Boyd told The Times: ‘It stands to reason that the more people there are in the population with infections — the prevalence — the more virus that is replicating and the more chance there is of even highly improbable mutations happening.’ 

He warned even if Britain gets on top of the South African strain, there will be more concerning ones down the line. He added: ‘My suspicion is that we will experience a damped oscillation of control-release for a long time to come — perhaps several years.’ 

Professor David Heymann, a top epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said people were going to have to ‘learn to live with’ Covid being an endemic illness

Professor Graham Medley, another SAGE member who is an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the newspaper that ‘everything works better’ when there is lower prevalence, adding that the emergence of new variants ‘strengthens that case’.

The Government has promised to look at lifting the most draconian curbs when the most vulnerable have been given at least one dose of vaccine, which they hope will drive down hospital admissions and deaths to manageable levels.

Brits need to ‘learn to live with Covid variants’, top expert says 

Experts believe coronavirus is becoming an ‘endemic’ disease, a leading epidemiologist has said.

Professor David Heymann, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, was asked on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if people were going to have to ‘learn to live with’ coronavirus circulating.

Prof Heymann replied: ‘It certainly seems like that in the shorter term, and probably in the long term as well.

‘Most experts believe that this disease is now becoming endemic, but the good thing is that we have many tools including vaccines with which we can deal with this virus.’

Drawing a comparison with the spread of HIV/Aids, he added: ‘We’ve learned to live with it, as we’ll learn to live with this infection as well.’

 

But yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock left the door open to longer restrictions in the face of the South African strain — risking furious backlash from Tory backbenchers who’ve accused No10 of ‘moving the goalposts’ over ending lockdown. 

Several other prominent leading scientists have already come out in support of extending the current shutdown to reduce the risk of the South African stain becoming widespread.

Professor Robin Shattock, of Imperial College London, who does not sit on SAGE but is a leader in advanced vaccine development, told The Times: ‘It would be very advisable to try to push the cases as low as possible to reduce the chance of additional variants. This would make sense alongside border restrictions.’

And Professor Mike Tildesley, from Warwick University, who also sits on SAGE, threw his support behind longer restrictions yesterday. 

So far there have only been 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant in the UK but this is likely to be a vast underestimate because up until last week officials were only analysing 10 per cent of random positive swabs. 

Scientists say the true number of cases is likely 10 to 20 times higher than the official count. No10 has deployed extra testing into more than 10 areas of England where the South African strain is thought to be spreading in the community.

The Prime Minister yesterday refused to rule out extending lockdown if the South African variant continues to spread.

Pressed on whether there may need to be a delay to easing restrictions if the jab is proven to be less effective at reducing transmission of the South African variant, the Prime Minister said vaccines are ‘going to offer a way out’ and ‘remain of massive benefit to our country’ — but failed to dismiss the prospect of a lockdown extension.

During a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility in Derby, he said: ‘We’re very confident in all the vaccines that we’re using. 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.’ 

But Government sources said on Sunday night there was ‘no indication’ the easing of lockdown would be affected by the findings that the Oxford vaccine is less effective against the South African variant. 

A tweaked version of the Oxford vaccine that targets the new strain is already in development and should be ready by August. 

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