Why UK COVID scientists are concerned most about the SA variant (for now)

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·2-min read
People take part in coronavirus surge testing on Clapham Common, south London. Thousands of residents have queued up to take coronavirus tests at additional facilities set up after new cases of the South African variant were found in two south London boroughs. 44 confirmed cases of the variant have been found in Lambeth and Wandsworth, with a further 30 probable cases identified. Picture date: Wednesday April 14, 2021. (Photo by Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images)
Coronavirus surge testing on Clapham Common, south London, last week. It was introduced in response to the detection of cases involving the South African variant. (Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images)

Since the turn of the year, there has been a constant focus on new coronavirus variants and, specifically, whether they will be resistant to vaccines.

This week, much of that focus has been on a variant first identified in India.

As of Monday, 103 infections involving the Indian variant had been identified in the UK. India itself is also seeing an enormous surge in cases: more than 250,000 were reported on Tuesday alone.

The UK government responded to all this on Monday by putting India on the travel ban “red list”.

However, the variant remains under investigation by UK scientists – and so far has not been deemed a “variant of concern”.

One top adviser has made clear the South African variant is still the one that worries her most at the moment.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme on Tuesday, Prof Sharon Peacock, head of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it’s “because we know it can partially evade immune response either from natural infection or vaccination".

Of the 11 variants identified in the UK so far, the South African one has been most prevalent, with 600 cases identified as of Wednesday last week, the latest date for which figures are available.

The variant, which is said to be highly transmissible, also prompted the government to introduce surge testing in parts of south London last week after new cases were identified.

Watch: India added to red list as concerns mount over coronavirus variants (from Monday)

For the Indian variant, on the other hand, Public Health England experts remain unsure if it can be transmitted more easily, is more deadly or can evade the effectiveness of vaccines or natural immunity.

Prof Peacock also said on Tuesday it’s unclear if the variant is the key factor behind India’s huge wave of infections.

“The question is whether this is associated with the variant, with human behaviour… or whether both are contributing.”

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Boris Johnson, speaking at Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference, insisted adding India to the travel red list was “purely precautionary”.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, Prof Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, warned of variants: “I think that the immunity that we’ve got already from infection and vaccines will continue to be useful, but it will get eroded and there will come a point where we need to reformulate vaccines to keep up with changes in the virus.”

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