Dr Mark Toshner

Controlling borders is a critical step in the fight against Covid

(Getty images)

Over the last two months our fight against Covid-19 appears to have changed dramatically. The emergence of novel variants in the UK, South Africa and Brazil has generated plenty of headlines and concern. We shouldn’t panic. But one thing is clear: if we don’t act now, we could come to regret it.

In the UK, for obvious reason we have been most focused on the B.1.1.7 variant. The evidence seems pretty clear that it is more transmissible and potentially more severe. Part of the reason we have such extensive data on virus mutations in the UK is the quite astonishing efforts that have gone into sequencing the viral genomes. With somewhere in the region of 50 per cent of the world’s sequencing happening here, it is perhaps not surprising that we are picking variants up quickly and learning about them almost in real time.

In reality, the scientific community has known from day one that this would happen. The only unanswered questions were when this might happen, and what impact viral mutations would have on the transmission and severity of disease.

Thankfully, we now know more about this illness and how to treat it. And, more crucially still, have a vaccine, which is safe and appears to be working well. In Israel, the only country far enough ahead to make any meaningful comments on their effects, the early data looks really encouraging, whether it is measured immune responses or counting the numbers of infections. What’s more, it seems that the UK variant does not have any impact on the efficacy of the vaccines.

But if that is the good news, here’s the bad news. While we have been focused on the UK variant, some troubling data is emerging on the South African variant. Several papers on the new 501Y.V2

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