South African variant WON'T take over in UK, Jonathan Van-Tam says

South African Covid variant WON’T take over in Britain soon because it can’t spread any faster than the already-dominant virus, Jonathan Van-Tam says – and he believes vaccines will still have a ‘substantial effect’ against it

  • Professor Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, offered reassurance today
  • Study suggested Oxford’s jab may not protect against South Africa variant
  • But only ‘small numbers’ of cases found in UK and it may not become dominant 
  • Other vaccines still appear to offer protection: JVT said he had ‘confidence’ 

The South African variant of coronavirus is not likely to take over and become dominant in the UK, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said today. 

England’s deputy chief medical officer said in a Downing Street press conference this afternoon that the variant doesn’t seem to spread any faster than others.

For a new strain of the virus to overtake an older one it generally needs to be able to spread faster to out-compete it, and Professor Van-Tam said there were no signs this would happen.

Offering words of reassurance after worrying news that the Oxford Covid vaccine may not work properly against the variant, Professor Van-Tam called for calm.

He encouraged everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they could and said the emergence of the new variants and the need to change the vaccines had always been inevitable and was ‘not a surprise’.

His comments come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to rule out extending lockdown if the South African variant can’t be brought under control.

A study emerged over the weekend that claimed Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s jab might not protect against the mutated strain, after people still developed mild and moderate Covid-19 after having been vaccinated.     

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, spoke from Downing Street about the South African Covid variant and said: ‘I don’t think that this is something we should be concerned about right at this point in time’

The Government has deployed surge testing to areas where the South African variant, or ones with similar mutations, have been found in the community. Professor Van-Tam reassured viewers that only a ‘small number’ of cases have been discovered 

Professor Van-Tam said tonight about the South African variant and fears that vaccines might be less effective against it: ‘I don’t think that this is something we should be concerned about right at this point in time’.

He explained: ‘It has been detected in the UK but in very small numbers and it is not our dominant virus. 

‘Our dominant virus at the moment is a variant which was first identified in Kent, which you’ll be aware of, and we call that B1.117. 

‘You will know from what we saw before Christmas with the 117 variant that, if it has a distinct transmissibility advantage over the predecessor, then it can establish itself very quickly indeed. 

‘But early data on modelling of B1.351 does not suggest this is so – does not suggest that the South African variant has a distinct transmissibility advantage over our current virus. 

‘And because of that there is no reason to think the South African variant will catch up, or overtake, our current virus in the next few months. And that’s a really important point.’

The Kent variant emerged in the autumn last year and quickly became dominant in England because it had a mutation that made it spread faster.

It now accounts for around two thirds of all Covid cases across the country, and significantly higher proportions in London, the East and the South East.

By comparison, only 147 cases of the South African variant have been confirmed so far by Public Health England.


Pfizer’s vaccine will work against the South African coronavirus variant — although its mutations could still mean thousands of injected people are vulnerable, a study has suggested.

Researchers at New York University tested how well the variant of the virus could be destroyed by the blood of 10 people who had received Pfizer’s jab.

They found the immune antibodies made by the vaccine were still able to neutralise – destroy – the coronavirus, but the body didn’t make as many of them.

Antibody levels would be still high enough to fend off Covid-19 in most people who had the vaccine, and they offered more protection than in people who had had the illness already, the study found.

But they did not work as well as they would on older versions of the virus because the antibodies were less perfectly matched to the spike proteins on the outside of the bug, meaning they more often failed to stop them.

The New York University researchers, led by microbiologist Dr Nathaniel Landau, wrote: ‘The findings suggest that the protection provided by vaccination will remain largely intact against the South Africa variant and other currently circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.’ 

The results were backed up by a separate study — initially released last week but published in a journal today. Researchers at the University of Texas carried out tests on the blood of 20 volunteers and found antibodies triggered by the Pfizer vaccine can neutralise the variant.

None were found in the local surge testing that has been happening over the weekend, Matt Hancock said. 

The risk of the South African variant is lessened slightly by the fact that a mutation that gives it a fast-spreading edge – named N501Y – is also found in the Kent strain.

This means they are on level pegging when it comes to the speed of spread, and the Kent variant is already so widespread that it has an advantage in sheer numbers. 

It is likely that only a faster-spreading variant, or one that causes fewer symptoms so could spread without people knowing, could overtake it.

Another mutation on the South African variant is more worrying, however, and could make it able to get past the immune systems even of vaccinated people.

When someone is vaccinated they develop immune proteins called antibodies that are extremely specific to the virus included in the vaccine and, if the immune system is faced with a different version of the virus in the future, it may be less able to stop it. 

If the virus mutates to look different, those antibodies will latch onto the virus less often, meaning more of the coronavirus can slip through and the risk of illness increases.

Studies have shown that the South African variant appears to make vaccines based on earlier versions of the virus less effective because its spike protein has changed so much.

However, Professor Van-Tam said this was not an immediate concern because the strain was not widespread enough.

He said: ‘Our immediate threat is from our current virus and there is now plenty of evidence that the vaccines that we are deploying are effective against our current virus.

‘So from that perspective, please don’t delay – if you’re called, take the advantage to protect yourself against the clear and present danger – against the immediate threat.’ 

He added: ‘Just as variations to the virus were inevitable, it’s almost inevitable that we would at some point need variations to the vaccine. 

‘This is not a big fright, it’s not a big surprise, it’s something that we have anticipated for quite some time.’

Professor Van-Tam’s comments follow an admission from Boris Johnson that restrictions might have to stay longer if the South African variant were to get out of control.

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.’

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