U.K. Officials Fear South Africa Strain Could Risk Recovery

Scientists are concerned the South Africa coronavirus strain could be far more widespread in the U.K. than test results show, threatening plans to start lifting lockdown once vaccines have been deployed.

Britain’s vaccination program is among the most advanced in the world, and 12.2 million people, including 91% of over-80s and 95% of people aged 75-79, have now received at least one dose, the government said.

But the new mutation is at least partially resistant to the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, one of two being used in the roll out, according to early trial results. Data suggested the vaccine has limited efficacy against mild and moderate cases, but there were no clear results on more serious illness.

If vaccines do not protect against severe cases of new variants that can hospitalize people and take lives, lockdown restrictions may need to last for longer, a person familiar with the government’s thinking said.

The government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said there is no reason to believe the South Africa strain will become dominant in the U.K. in the next few months, and told a press briefing Monday evening that he expects existing vaccines to work against it.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, the risk is that the South Africa variant could wreck hopes of reopening the economy from its third national lockdown starting next month. The U.K. has suffered the fifth-highest Covid death toll in the world and the worst economic hit of the Group of Seven countries.

Road Map

Johnson has promised to set out a road map for easing the restrictions in the week of Feb. 22, with schools resuming face-to-face teaching as soon as March 8.

Yet there may not be any reliable data by that point on whether the AstraZeneca vaccine prevents severe illness in patients with the South Africa variant. If the vaccines don’t stop the most serious cases, it could completely change the outlook for lockdown easing, the person said.

Ministers have been trying to contain the South Africa strain by using so-called surge testing in areas of the country where it has been found. The aim is to test as many people as possible to identify those who have the variant but don’t have symptoms, in order to keep them isolated and stop the spread of infections.

While only 147 confirmed cases of the South Africa mutation have been identified in the U.K., the true number is likely to be at least 10 times that, according to Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick.

That’s because fewer than 10% of positive coronavirus tests are sequenced to find the variant. “It’s already out there, it’s been here for a few weeks if not a few months,” Young said in an interview. “The bottom line is it’s everywhere, and there’ll be a lot of people around with that infection.”

Longer Lockdown

Mike Tildesley, who advises the government on pandemic modeling, said it is “very possible” the South African variant is already quite widely spread in the U.K.

“I would expect we could see quite a few more cases coming over the next few weeks,” Tildesley, also an academic at Warwick, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. He warned “more restrictions might be needed for longer” if the variant does turn out to be prevalent in the U.K.

But ministers sought to reassure the public Monday. The AstraZeneca vaccine -- which is being deployed across the U.K. alongside a Pfizer/BioNTech shot -- is still likely to prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths from the South Africa strain, the government said.

“We’re very confident in all the vaccines that we’re using,” Johnson told reporters during a visit to a Covid test manufacturing plant in Derby. “All of them, we think, are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death, which is the most important thing.”

At the press conference in London later Monday, Van-Tam said the South Africa virus does not so far seem to be more contagious than the existing strain dominating the outbreak in Britain. “There is no reason to think that the South Africa variant will catch up or overtake our current virus in the next few months,” Van-Tam said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.