Although there's plenty of positive vaccine news to go around, the latest government press conference offered a sobering reminder of the obstacles that remain when it comes to ensuring a successful vaccination programme. The Health Secretary said that despite recent efforts to prevent new arrivals to the UK bringing in the South African variant, random check found 11 cases that could not be linked to international travel. This means there has been community transmission.
While Hancock said there was 'currently no evidence' to suggest this variant is more severe, its emergence is of concern across government. The reason? The effect of vaccines on the new strain. Early data from two new coronavirus vaccine trials — Novavax and Johnson & Johnson — suggested they have lower efficacy against the South African variant.
Speaking today, Public Health England's Susan Hopkins said three of the vaccines used to date in trials have shown they are still effective against it 'at a level greater than the minimum standard set by the WHO'. However, she said the variant could mutate further if left unchecked — potentially making it more resistant to current vaccines. Already several companies are looking at delivering a booster shot targeted specifically at the South African variant.
For now, the government is aiming to clamp down on community transmission of the variant by offering urgent tests to residents aged 16 and over in eight areas where it has been traced to — including Surrey, London, Kent, Hertfordshire, Southport and Walsall. Today's news comes as Labour call for tighter quarantine measures — so that all new arrivals to the UK face hotel quarantine rather than just those coming from countries of concern. But as things stand, the government hasn't yet set up the announced hotel quarantine for high-risk countries such as South Africa. Pressure for swift action is building.