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Covid vaccines ‘may have to be started from scratch’ as more variants expected

Covid strains: Prof Devi Sridhar on threat of further lockdowns

There have been two new Covid variants discovered recently, not including the UK’s own mutated strain. South Africa and Brazil have both reported cases of a new strain of the virus, suggesting its genetic code has developed since the original was found in Wuhan in 2019. The South African variant has been found in the UK as authorities reported two cases with no links to travel, indicating it could be reproducing by itself here. And worryingly, some vaccines have already started to show less efficacy against the new variant.

According to one expert, the more variants that are discovered, the more likely the vaccine programme may have to be modified.

Speaking to Express.co.uk, Martin Michaelis, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent said: “In principle, everything can happen with regard to new variants.

“They can be more or less transmissible, and they can be more or less deadly.

“It is not clear what these developments will exactly mean for the current vaccination campaigns.

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“In a worst case scenario, a new variant that is particularly effective in infecting individuals despite pre-existing immunity could mean that vaccination campaigns may have to be started from scratch.”

If another, more deadly variant was discovered, this would prove disastrous for the huge progress made on the vaccination front in the last ten months.

As it stands, the UK has vaccinated 9.2million people with their first dose, while more than 490,000 have received a second.

The good news is, the vaccination programme being rendered ineffective is not a likely occurrence at this point in time.

Professor Michaelis added: “Fortunately, this is an extreme scenario that does not seem very likely.

“Normally, the immune protection against novel variants will be reduced but not completely disappear, and fortunately, the current vaccines can be quickly adapted to cover novel variants.

“Hence, a more likely scenario is that vaccines will be adapted at some point during the vaccine rollout to increase the protection that they provide.”

The molecular medicine expert said the future could see vaccines modified to “protect against a range of variants”, but that “we still have a bumpy ride ahead of us”.

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The expert said the most important thing people can do to reduce the likelihood of new variants popping up right now is to keep adhering to safety measures.

He explained: “Our efforts to reduce COVID-19 spread become even more important with this in mind, because reduced spread also means a reduced risk that new, more dangerous variants emerge.

“If we suppress COVID-19 spread, we reduce the number of virus replication cycles and at the same time the number of random mutations that may give rise to new variants.”

The urgency to bring down virus case numbers is illustrated by the detection of virus variants with the E484K mutation, which is expected to reduce the immune response of the South African and Brazilian variants.

When asked if vaccination was the right way out of lockdown given the new mutations, Professor Michaelis said only reducing the rates of infections will enable the world to go back to how it was.

He concluded: “Only very low numbers enable the control of COVID-19 spread by identifying and isolating individuals and their contacts locally without far-reaching restrictions and lockdowns.

“Moreover, low COVID-19 levels prevent the formation of novel dangerous virus variants and ensure that we can effectively use vaccines to give us our freedoms back.”

With the UK well on track to vaccinate 15 million in the top four priority groups in the next two weeks, the situation could well be looking up as we near the end of the pandemic – hopefully.

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  • Posted on February 3, 2021