The South African variant of COVID-19 is not expected to become the UK’s dominant strain in the next few months, England’s deputy chief medical officer has said.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam revealed only a “very small” number of cases of it have been discovered in the UK, trying to ease people’s fears given scientists think vaccines will still be effective against it, but less so.
“I don’t think that this is something we should be concerned about right at this point in time,” he told a Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Monday.
“The stories and the headlines around variant viruses and vaccines are a bit scary – I wish they weren’t.”
He added he was already thinking “over the horizon” about the potential for further vaccines to tackle new variants, which could be rolled out in the autumn.
Prof Van-Tam explained that several vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer have released preliminary data about their jabs’ effect on the South African variant.
They “do give me confidence that there is still likely to be a substantial effect of the current vaccines, in terms of reducing serious illness – even if infections are not as well prevented”, he said.
Directly addressing people wondering whether to wait for a coronavirus vaccine more effective against the South African variant, Prof Van-Tam urged them: “Do not delay.
“Have the vaccine that will protect you against the current threat and don’t worry, you can be re-vaccinated.
“For people who’ve had a full course of two vaccines, a re-vaccination is probably only going to require one dose. That requires some science work to confirm it, but that is my hunch.”
After South Africa halted the rollout of the Oxford/ AstraZeneca jab, Prof Van-Tam said the vaccine’s trial there showed young adults had a “mild disease and a reduced level of protection against infection”.
“But that really doesn’t change my view that it is still rather likely to have an effect on severe disease,” he explained.
Prof Van-Tam also said there is “plenty of evidence that the vaccines we are deploying are effective” against the variant first found in Kent that is now “dominant” in the UK.
Sir Mark Walport, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, later told Sky News it is not just the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine that is “showing less effectiveness” against the South African variant.
“We know from clinical studies of the other vaccines that they seem to be a bit less effective as well,” he said.
“What we know about the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine is that it doesn’t appear to stop mild or moderate disease in a young population.
“What we don’t know at this stage is whether it will actually prevent the severe disease leading to hospitalisation and potentially death in older populations.”