Variants

Health Scientists “Haven’t Seen Any Hint” That Covid Variants Can Fully Evade Vaccines

Over-50s will be offered a third Covid vaccine dose before winter, in part to tackle new variants. But according to the Head of the Covid Genomics U.K. Consortium (COG-UK), there is currently “no hint” of a variant that can fully evade the effectiveness of vaccines. If anything, future variants could be less infectious. The Express and Star has the story.

Sharon Peacock, Head of COG-UK and Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it could be the case that coronavirus mutates to become less infectious, though she warned it could take years for it to become like the common cold.

Asked whether a variant will emerge somewhere across the globe that is resistant to current vaccines, Professor Peacock told Times Radio: “That’s what we’d call it, a variant of major concern. We haven’t seen anything like that to date, and the question you’re asking is the million dollar question in many ways, everybody wants to know what’s the likelihood and when is it likely to occur, if at all.

“What we don’t know is if it is likely to occur. We know that as mutations accumulate in the virus, it can actually make it more fit in terms of avoiding our immune system, but the more mutations it accumulates, it could actually lead to a virus that is less infectious, for example.

“So there’s a trade-off for the virus in terms of how many mutations it can tolerate.

“Now, some people have predicted that a virus could emerge that is pretty resistant to vaccines, but we haven’t seen any hint of that at the moment.

“And the idea that this could arise is based on models from previous viruses, not this current one, so at the moment, I remain optimistic that we’re in a good place – that the viruses that are circulating are susceptible to vaccinations.”

Despite the continual fall of Covid cases and deaths, and the success of the vaccine rollout, the Government and media narrative around the virus continues to be fairly pessimistic – largely due to the perceived threat of variants. Imperial College’s Danny Altmann said last month that the Indian Covid variant could “scupper” Britain’s “roadmap” out of lockdown – a statement which a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation criticised as “pessimistic“. Professor Neil Ferguson also believes that life in Britain will “not [be] completely back to normal” by summer because of Covid variants, despite advisers to SAGE saying last week that Pfizer’s vaccine does protect well against the South African variant after people have had both doses.

The Express and Star report is worth reading in full.

Life Will “Feel a Lot More Normal By the Summer”, Says Neil Ferguson

Professor Neil Ferguson says that the success of the U.K.’s vaccine rollout means life will feel more normal by the summer, though we will still “not [be] completely back to normal“. His predictions echo recent reports that while many restrictions will come to an end on June 21st, mask-wearing and caps on numbers attending large events could stay in place past the “end” of lockdown. But with Covid cases and deaths continuing to fall, more MPs – and even papers – are asking why restrictions can’t come to an end now. MailOnline has more.

The SAGE Adviser and Imperial College London Epidemiologist, whose sobering death toll predictions led Britain into its first lockdown last year, said today that he expects the vaccine rollout to help keep the U.K. out of lockdown for good. 

His comments will be seized upon by the Tory MPs calling for the roadmap to normality to be sped up…

Sir Robert Syms, Tory MP for Poole in Dorset, yesterday said: “We need to push the Government to get on with it. A lot of normal life could be returned.” He said the country would “lose another summer” if rules aren’t eased soon. 

The PM has so far refused to budge in the face of calls for more freedom. Trade Secretary Liz Truss this morning dodged questions about whether she thought it should be sped up and told talkRADIO: “We do need to make sure any opening up is irreversible.”

… Professor Ferguson said that jabs appear to work so well that they may hold the virus at bay even in the autumn and winter, when experts fear it will make a comeback like flu. 

He added that the ratio of cases to hospital admissions would be much lower next time around and it was unlikely there will be any danger of the NHS getting overwhelmed.

He admitted “we do expect transmission” when society fully reopens in June but suggested vaccination should replace the need for lockdowns and the U.K. is “in a very good position” to stick to plans for June 21st.

Professor Ferguson’s main fear now is the threat of Covid variants, against which he believes “booster [vaccine] doses” should be administered.

Other advisers to SAGE last week published a study showing that Pfizer’s jab protects well against the South African variant after people have had both doses.

Professor Ferguson said: “The risk from variants, where vaccines are less effective is the major concern. That’s the one thing that could still lead to a very major third wave in the autumn.

“So I think it’s essential that we roll out booster doses which can protect against that as soon as we finish vaccinating the adult population which should finish by the summer…

“It’s much better to be vaccinating people than shutting down the whole of society. 

“So I think, with that one caveat, I am feeling fairly optimistic that we will be – not completely back to normal – but something that feels a lot more normal by the summer.”

Worth reading in full.

Pro-Lockdown MPs Tell Government to Discourage Holidays Abroad After May 17th

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus (APPG) – a zealously pro-lockdown group of opposition MPs – has urged the Government to discourage holidays abroad even when they’re legal so as to keep Covid variants out of the U.K. and prevent a third wave of infections. The Group said that, if implemented, this approach should only be reviewed every three months. The Guardian has the story.

Holidays abroad should be discouraged even once legal, a cross-party group of MPs have said as part of a suite of recommendations to prevent a third wave of coronavirus and further lockdowns.

Under the U.K. Government’s roadmap to relax coronavirus restrictions, international travel for leisure purposes could resume from May 17th.

Ministers have confirmed that a traffic light system is to be put in place in which countries will be added to green, amber and red lists, with different rules regarding issues such as quarantine of returning travellers for each list…

But on Monday the APPG issued a report recommending that holidays abroad should be discouraged in light of experts’ concerns about international travel.

“The U.K. Government should discourage all international leisure travel to prevent the importation of new variants into the U.K., in order to reduce the risk of a third wave and further lockdowns,” the report states, adding that financial support must be given to the travel industry. “This recommendation should be implemented immediately and reviewed on a quarterly basis.”

The SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford, the Group’s Vice-Chair, said: “Our cross-party inquiry has heard how the U.K.’s border management is acting more like a sieve than a shield in the fight against coronavirus. Ministers must act on these recommendations and learn from the mistakes made last year, when the premature reopening of international travel contributed to a second wave. With the threat of importing dangerous new Covid variants, we must not throw away recent hard-won progress made through the sacrifices and efforts of the public.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Even if holidaymakers are allowed to travel abroad from May 17th, only a “tiny handful” of countries are expected to be included on the “green list”. Travellers to countries in this category will not have to quarantine upon their return to the U.K. but will have to pay for PCR tests. The Telegraph has the story.

The “green” list for quarantine-free travel, to be unveiled on Thursday or Friday, is expected to be limited to a “tiny handful” of countries including Gibraltar, Israel, Iceland and Malta. Most European nations will be on the “amber” list requiring 10-day home quarantine on arrival back in the U.K..

Amber-rated countries are expected to include Spain, Greece, France and Italy, as well as their islands. Portugal is the only big European holiday destination with a chance of making the green list from May 17th.

Also worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Boris Johnson poured cold water this morning on hopes of an extensive green list being announced shortly. “We do want to do some opening up on May 17th but I don’t think that the people of this country want to see an influx of disease from anywhere else,” he told reporters on an early morning visit to Hartlepool where a by-election is taking place on Thursday. “I certainly don’t and we have got to be very, very tough, and we have got to be as cautious as we can, whilst we continue to open up.”

India Added to “Red List” over New Variant Concerns

India will be added to the Government’s “red list” for international travel as a “precautionary measure” after 103 people in the U.K. were found carrying the country’s Covid variant. From Friday, Brits coming from or through India will have to quarantine in Government approved hotels for 11 days, costing £1,750 per person (or £2,400 for two people sharing a room). Those who break these quarantine rules could face a fine of up to £10,000. The Guardian has the story.

India will be added to England’s travel “red list” from 4am on Friday, Matt Hancock has announced, as surge testing got under way to tackle a growth in cases of a coronavirus variant first discovered in the country.

The Health Secretary said that of 103 people in the UK who have so far been found to be carrying the Indian variant, the “vast majority” had links to international travel – suggesting at least some have been infected by community transmission.

He said scientists were working to see if the variant had any “concerning characteristics” such as being more transmissible or resistant to vaccines, but that in the meantime the move had been taken on a “precautionary basis”.

The decision means most travel from India will be banned, with only UK citizens and residents allowed to arrive from the country, and all those who do must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

Hancock admitted that the “biggest risk” to coronavirus restrictions being eased was a “new variant that the vaccine does not work as well against”, so surge testing would be rolled out “to make sure that we limit the spread as much as possible”.

Labour has (of course) supported the Government’s decision, with Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth saying that “we must act fast when the situation is controllable because in a few weeks time it might not be”.

The addition of India means there will be 40 countries on the Government’s travel “red list”, including parts of southern Africa and all of South America. While some have said that the Indian Covid variant could “scupper” Britain’s “roadmap” out of lockdown, others, such as JCVI member Professor Adam Finn, have said that this verdict is “pessimistic” because immunity from vaccines “won’t just disappear”. The announcement that India has been added to the “red list” came after the Prime Minister cancelled his trip to the country due to take place next Monday.

“I do think it’s only sensible to postpone, given what’s happened in India, the shape of the pandemic there,” he said.

The Guardian’s report is worth reading in full.

International Travel Restrictions Likely to Be In Place For Some Time, Says Nicola Sturgeon

Concerns over new Covid variants continue to hamper the narrative regarding Britain’s unlock. Nicola Sturgeon has warned that restrictions on international travel should not be lifted too soon because of the “big risk” of importing Covid variants into the UK. Scotland’s First Minister also told Sophy Ridge on Sky News that the British Government’s “traffic light” system for international travel is not fit for purpose because “we don’t know where the next dangerous variant will come from“.

The Daily Record has the story.

Nicola Sturgeon has warned Scotland faces a “big risk” of importing new variants of the coronavirus if restrictions on international travel are lifted too soon.

The First Minister admitted lifting travel abroad “too quickly” last year which allowed the virus to re-seed amongst the population, which then lead to a second national lockdown.

Speaking on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, the SNP leader said Scots face living longer with international travel restrictions due to the risk of importing new strains of Covid. 

She added: “The big risk that we face, not just in Scotland but in the UK, is the importation of new variants of the virus.

“Variants that might be faster spreading, that might be more severe, and crucially variants that might undermine the efficacy of the vaccines.

“We have to be very careful about that which is why I think one of the restrictions we’re all going to have to live with for longer is a restriction on international travel.

“We must not allow the progress we are making domestically to be undermined by a too lax position on international travel.”

… Asked about the fast-spreading Indian variant, Sturgeon said: … “It is a variant of interest as oppose to a variant of concern.”

Worth reading in full.

Too Early to Tell If Hospitality Can Reopen On May 17th, Says Minister

It is still “too early to say” whether the reopening of indoor hospitality can take place on May 17th, according to the Environment Minister. George Eustice told Andrew Marr on the BBC that while Britain’s vaccine rollout is “on track” (with 10 million second doses expected to have been administered by the end of the weekend), the risk of Covid variants could delay the next step in the Government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown. He is quoted on the Guardian website:

Well, it is too early to say. But I think we are on track in the sense that we are on track with the rollout of the vaccination programme. We have now vaccinated everybody over the age of 50 and this week they are offering vaccinations as well to those under the age of 50, starting with the 45-to-59 year-olds – so that bit is on track.

But we are being a bit cautious here. So although we have now got 60% of the adult population vaccinated we do just have to keep a close eye on these variants of concern.

Also, see what the impacts are of the easements we have just made, the loosenings we have just made, before moving to the next stage.

He delivered a similar message to Sophy Ridge on Sky News:

The biggest threat to everything we’re doing at the moment is that at some point there will be a variant that manages to evade the vaccine or largely evade it, so it is high on our concerns which is why while the vaccine rollout has been incredibly successful with over 60% of the adult population now vaccinated, we continue to proceed with some caution as we come out of lockdown.

The impact of the partial easing of lockdown earlier this month has been tempered by the weather (of course!) and by the fact that a “large proportion” of hospitality businesses do not have access to sufficient outdoor space. Kate Nicholls, the Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, said that even those venues which were able to reopen outdoors “still aren’t going to break even… the best they are going to achieve outdoors is 20%”, highlighting the need to allow businesses to open fully – that is, indoors.

Imperial College’s Danny Altmann said on Friday that “we should be terribly concerned” about the emergence of the Indian Covid variant in Britain, which could “scupper” the “roadmap” out of lockdown – a statement which a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says is “pessimistic“. The Evening Standard reported:

Imported coronavirus variants are unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one” because immunity from vaccines “won’t just disappear”, according to a key figure on the UK’s immunisation committee.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said he expected a “gradual erosion” of vaccine protection as the virus evolves but not enough to “scupper” the Prime Minister’s roadmap, as one leading scientist had predicted.

Meanwhile, Covid cases have fallen to a seven-month low in England.

Vaccine Immunity “Won’t Just Disappear” in Face Of Covid Variants, Says JCVI Member

A member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says claims that the Government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown could be “scuppered” by Covid variants are “pessimistic”, saying that the immunity gained from vaccines “won’t just disappear”. The Evening Standard has the story.

Imported coronavirus variants are unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one” because immunity from vaccines “won’t just disappear”, according to a key figure on the UK’s immunisation committee.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said he expected a “gradual erosion” of vaccine protection as the virus evolves but not enough to “scupper” the Prime Minister’s road map, as one leading scientist had predicted.

Imperial College’s Danny Altmann said on Friday that “we should be terribly concerned” about the discovery of 77 cases of the Indian Covid variant in Britain. He is quoted in a Sky News report:

[Covid variants] are things that can most scupper our escape plan at the moment and give us a third wave. They are a worry.

But Professor Finn of the JCVI said he thought the immunology expert’s assessment was “a bit pessimistic”.

We’ve all expected evolution of this virus to occur from the start.

I also think that we know from other viruses and previous experience that the immunity that vaccines give won’t just disappear.

It will be a gradual erosion. It won’t be back to square one. I would be really surprised if that happened.

So, I think, possibly, that interpretation is a bit pessimistic.

He added, however, that “we’re going to need to continue to be really quite careful” and that many aspects of life, including overseas travel, “won’t go back to normal yet” as we need to “avoid moving the virus around”.

The Evening Standard’s report is worth reading in full.

Kent Covid Variant No More Severe, Studies Show

Two new studies have shown that the “Kent” Covid variant – which Boris Johnson previously said “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality” – does not cause more severe disease, despite being more transmissible. The Financial Times has the story.

The highly contagious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, which originated in Kent and now dominates Covid transmissions across Europe and North America, does not cause more severe disease, according to two new studies. 

The research, published on Monday night, appeared to contradict earlier conclusions that B.1.1.7 infection led to more serious symptoms and was about 60% more lethal than previous variants of the virus.

The new studies used different methods. One team compared illness severity in patients infected with B.1.1.7 and other variants at two London hospitals – University College London Hospital and North Middlesex Hospital. The other combined data collected by the UK’s Zoe Covid Symptom Study mobile app with surveillance records from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium and Public Health England.

Both studies confirmed previous findings that B.1.1.7 is at least 35% more transmissible. But, once the data were fully corrected for demographic and epidemiological factors, neither study found an association between the variant and more severe disease symptoms.

Dr Eleni Nastouli, the lead author of the UCL study which has been published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, said the study helped researchers properly analyse the severity of the variant.

One of the real strengths of our study is that it ran at the same time that B.1.1.7 was emerging and spreading throughout London and the south of England.

Analysing the variant before the peak of hospital admissions and any associated strains on the health service gave us a crucial window of time to gain vital insights into how B.1.1.7 differs in severity or death in hospitalised patients from the strain of the first wave.

After Boris Johnson said in a January news briefing that “the new variant… may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”, MPs accused the Government of “scaremongering” about the virus without strong supporting evidence – evidence which even Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance said was “weak”.

The Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers and business chiefs are growing increasingly alarmed at suggestions lockdown could stretch well into summer despite Britain’s vaccination programme  

Tory backbencher Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline some of the scientific warnings were reminiscent of Project Fear and every time there was hope of easing lockdown there was “a new twist”.

The FT‘s report is worth reading in full.

British Variant Not More Deadly, Admits PHE

Contrary to claims since January that the Kent coronavirus variant is “up to 100%” more deadly, a new study from Public Health England has confirmed – as a Lockdown Sceptics‘ analysis showed three weeks ago – that it is no more deadly than the original virus. The study continues to claim it increases the risk of hospitalisation by 30%, but this too seems unlikely to be more than a statistical artefact. As the Swiss Doctor notes, it is based on poor evidence, and “the influence of age, comorbidities and seasonal effects is much larger”.

Lockdown Sceptics noted on Saturday that while the British variant is becoming dominant in many countries, that dominance is often, as in the UK and Denmark, accompanied by infections, hospitalisations and deaths plummeting not surging. President Macron is locking down France again for a month (including closing schools), blaming the surge on the British variant. But is this correct? Here’s the graph plotting the progress of the Kent variant across the channel.

SARS-CoV-2 variant prevalence in France – Kent variant in red (from CoVariant)

Here’s what the positivity rate does at the same time.

Models Fail to Predict the British Variant’s Decline

One reason that go-slow BoJo is taking his sweet time over lifting lockdown is to allow himself enough time (frankly, more than enough) to see the impact of each change before making the next.

A Covid surge was, naturally, predicted by Government scientific advisers when schools went back in March. Has that happened? Not even a ripple. In fact, since mass testing in schools began in early March the positive rate has hit a floor of 0.4% (presumably a lot to do with the false positive rate). Are any of these advisers embarrassed by their failed predictions that threatened the education of our children? If so, we’ve not heard.

To be fair, in February, SPI-M member Mark Woolhouse (one of the more heretical ones) told MPs he wasn’t expecting a surge as schools returned, since schools don’t drive the epidemic. “One of the stated reasons for keeping schools closed was to avoid some surge in cases when they open – that’s never happened across western Europe,” he said. Which begs the question: why were schools closed to “avoid some surge in cases when they open” if this has never happened? And why now are children subject to wearing masks all day and constant testing and having to self-isolate whenever they (or a classmate) gets a false positive? Is it all “just in case”?

Perhaps more significant, though, is that this no-show of a surge occurred despite the UK being dominated by the British Covid variant, as the graph below shows, which the Government says is more deadly and more contagious.

SARS-CoV-2 variant prevalence in UK – Kent variant in red (from CoVariant)

New ONS data published on Friday (see graph below) shows that new daily infections in the winter peaked around December 26th – 10 days before the lockdown on January 5th that we were told needed to be “tough enough” to contain the new mutant variant.