England’s deputy chief medical officer has allayed fears over the spread of a new South African variant of coronavirus, insisting there is “no reason to believe” the mutant strain will become dominant in the UK.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Jonathan Van-Tam said the South African variant has now become the dominant strain in South Africa, while the UK’s only “immediate threat” remains a new Covid strain first identified in Kent.
He added that there was no evidence to suggest the South African variant was more transmissible than other strains, “meaning there is no reason to think it will catch up or overtake” our current variant.
Van-Tam assured that available vaccines remain effective against the Kent variant, after data showing the South Africa strain proved partially resistant to the Astrazeneca jab sparked widespread concern.
“If you read the headlines and you feel a bit panicky please try and be reassured that the better watchwords are ‘concern’… ‘vigilance’ and ‘preparation,'” Van-Tam added. “There is a lot going on behind the scenes that will become clearer over time.”
It comes after the vaccines deployment minister this morning announced that millions of people will need a third vaccine dose in the autumn after a new study showed the new E484K mutation seen in the South African variant may prove resistant to the Astrazeneca vaccine.
Nadhim Zahawi said that this would be done “in the way we do with flu vaccinations, where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, you rapidly produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation”.
Health secretary Matt Hancock added that coronavirus vaccines would probably become an “annual routine” in the future as new variants emerge.
So far, 147 cases of the South African variant have been identified in Britain. Scientists are concerned that its new E484K mutation, also found in the Brazil variant and a small number of mutated versions of the Kent variant, may evade the immune system.
Astrazeneca last week said it aims to produce a “next generation” Covid-19 vaccine especially suited to new mutations as soon as the autumn.
Mene Pangalos, a senior research chief at the British-Swedish firm, said Astrazeneca will start developing a new vaccine for the mutated strains and will look to make them public “as rapidly as possible”.
The government on Friday signed a deal with German biotech firm CureVac for 50m doses of a new vaccine being developed to tackle emerging Covid mutations.
The deal will see CureVac create “new varieties of vaccines based on messenger RNA technology to be developed quickly against new strains of Covid-19 if they are needed”, as ministers face growing pressure to drum up a strategy for snuffing out new coronavirus strains.