UK Health Sec 'incredibly worried about S Africa coronavirus variant'

Some scientists reportedly not certain vaccines will work on new Covid-19 variant

LONDON: The new variant of the Covid-19 virus identified in South Africa is even more of a risk than the highly infectious UK variant, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday, adding that it was a very significant problem.

"I'm incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that's why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa," he told BBC radio.

"This is a very, very significant problem... and it's even more of a problem than the UK new variant."

Public Health England said there was currently no evidence to suggest vaccines will not be effective against the new strain.

But the political editor of Britain's ITV, quoting a source, said some scientists are not fully confident that Covid-19 vaccines will work on the South African variant.

"According to one of the government's scientific advisers, the reason for Matt Hancock's 'incredible worry' about the South African Covid-19 variant is that they are not as confident the vaccines will be as effective against it as they are for the UK's variant," Mr Robert Peston said.

The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ITV report.

Scientists, including BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin and Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford John Bell, have said they are testing the vaccines on the variants and say they could make required tweaks in around six weeks.

Scientists say the new South African variant has multiple mutations in the important "spike" protein that the virus uses to infect human cells.

It has also been associated with a higher viral load, meaning a higher concentration of virus particles in patients' bodies, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission.

Prof Bell, who advises the government's vaccine task force, said on Sunday he thought vaccines would work on the British variant but said there was a "big question mark" as to whether they would work on the South African variant.

He told Times Radio that the shots could be adapted and "it might take a month or six weeks to get a new vaccine".

Dr Sahin, when asked about coping with a strong mutation, said it would be possible to tweak the vaccine within six weeks - though it might require additional regulatory approvals. - REUTERS