Today’s big question

Coronavirus: what the new Covid-19 strain means for the UK’s vaccination plan

Emergence of mutated virus may mean inoculation is more vital than ever

The new strain of Covid-19 spreading rapidly across London and the Southeast may mean that vaccination is now the only way to stop infections spiralling out of control.

In a matter of months, the mutation has “gone from being non-existent to the most common form of the virus in parts of England”, rapidly replacing less infectious variants of Covid-19, the BBC reports.

While there is no evidence yet that it makes the virus more deadly, “just increasing transmission would be enough to cause problems for hospitals”, the broadcaster adds.

How far has it spread?

It is important to note that all viruses mutate all of the time. Dr Muge Cevik, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), tells The Guardian that “more than 4,000 Sars-Cov-2 mutations had been observed so far, of which maybe a handful appeared to be of any significance”. 

In a summary published on Sunday, Nervtag said that it had “moderate confidence” that the mutation was more infections than previous incarnations. The “variant was associated with 10% to 15% of cases in certain areas a few weeks ago, but last week jumped to roughly 60% of cases in London”, it said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News yesterday that the Covid strain was “out of control”, meaning Tier 4 measures were needed in London and the surrounding areas to contain its spread into other parts of the UK.

Infections with this variant have appeared “across the UK, except Northern Ireland”, but are concentrated in the Southeast, the BBC says. Data from open-source project Nextstrain, which monitors the genetic codes of infections, suggest cases in Denmark and Australia have come from the UK. The Netherlands has also reported cases.

What does it mean for vaccine supplies?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said that the supply of Covid vaccinations to the UK will not be affected by France’s travel ban. “Despite the border closure for freight and travel... containers carrying the jabs are still allowed through Dover,” The Sun says. 

Shapps told Sky News today that while the 48-hour ban on freight hauliers from Britain was “surprising”, there is “no issue at all” with the vaccine. “There are good supplies in the meantime so there won't be an impact on the vaccination programme,” he added.

Should the ban remain in place for longer than 48-hours, The Telegraph reports, “the Department of Health has contingency plans in place to airlift the Pfizer vaccines from Belgium using military aircraft”.

‘Injections, or infections’

Maintaining the supply of jabs will be top priority for ministers, as the new strain may mean that it is now a case of “injections, or infections” in the UK, according to The Times’ science editor Tom Whipple.

“Until now we have known that in extremis, with a grand national effort, we can suppress the virus,” he says. But if the new variant is as infections as it appears to be, “that’s no longer the case”.

Prior to the arrival of the new strain, the response to the pandemic was a “siege” but “now, it is a race”, he adds. “We have to inject people faster than it infects people.”

Will the vaccines still work?

The answer to the most pressing question - whether the newly developed vaccines will work against the new mutation - is “almost certainly yes, or at least for now”, the BBC says. “Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.”

Whitehall sources also told The Telegraph that “scientists at the Porton Down facility in Wiltshire are growing samples of the new strain before adding serum taken from vaccinated patients to test the response”.

A senior source told the paper that the results should be expected in a “couple of weeks”. The Ministry of Defence is “researching the new strain at Biosafety Level Three, one below the highest tier reserved for weapons-grade threats”, the paper adds.

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