Lockdown easing could be DELAYED if South African variant spreads, expert warns


LOCKDOWN easing could be delayed if the South African variant spreads, an expert has warned.

A “significant” cluster of cases have been detected in south London, leading to the largest testing drive so far.

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The lifting of lockdown is under threat due to cases of the South African variant. Pictured: People enjoying new freedoms on a night out in Manchester City Centre yesterday

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The lifting of lockdown is under threat due to cases of the South African variant. Pictured: People enjoying new freedoms on a night out in Manchester City Centre yesterdayCredit: LNP

James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and professor at the University of Oxford, said we will know in “two to three weeks” how much it has spread once people in Wandsworth and Lambeth have been swabbed.

And it could spell bad news for the reopening of society, the next step of which is on May 17 when indoor mixing is relaxed followed by a lifting of all rules in on June 21.

Prof Naismith told BBC Radio 4: “I am supportive of the Government unlocking, I think people need some way out of this.

“But I think we have to be driven by what happens with the variants, what happens with the vaccination campaign. We might have to slow it, we might have to reverse it. We might be able to continue as we are. 

“But the important thing is we need to watch if the South African variant has really taken off, and we’ll probably know in 2-3 weeks, then we may need to pause reopening.”

A total of 533 confirmed cases of the South African variant have been detected in the UK.

But this won’t be all of them, given that only a fraction (10 per cent) of positive Covid swabs are screened in laboratories to see if they were caused by the South African strain.

People in Lambeth and Wandsworth are being urged to get a Covid test due to a "significant" cluster of South African variant cases. Pictured: A testing hub in the Lambeth borough on February 25

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People in Lambeth and Wandsworth are being urged to get a Covid test due to a “significant” cluster of South African variant cases. Pictured: A testing hub in the Lambeth borough on February 25Credit: Alamy

Pro Naismith said: “It’s not good news that we’ve got so many cases of the South African variant. 

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“It has that mutation E48K that I think most of us worry about. The South African variant I think doesn’t spread particularly faster than what we have, the Kent variant. But nonetheless the concern is that E484K.”

The E484K mutation is on both the South African and Brazilian variant, and gives them the ability to dodge immunity.

It means someone who has already had Covid or been vaccinated, and therefore has immunity, may still be infected with the new variants.

For this reason, vaccines are not a “silver bullet”, although are still seen as the only way out of the pandemic.

Prof Naismith said: “It’s like having a player sent off. It doesn’t mean the immune system is going to lose the battle, but it’s clearly harder against E484K.

“There is evidence from Brazil that people can be reinfected with a strain of the virus that has that mutation, having previously been infected with a strain which did not. 

“Vaccines are less effective against the E484k. It doesn’t mean they are not effective – which is why i use the analogy of a player being sent off – you can still win, it’s just harder.”

A scientist explained the UK’s position as being “in a moated castle with a fire raging the other side”.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology, Warwick Medical School, told The Sun: “We can’t ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world.

People crowd the Soho area yesterday after a major step of the lockdown was lifted

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People crowd the Soho area yesterday after a major step of the lockdown was liftedCredit: Getty
The next step of unlocking will allow people to dine and drink indoors

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The next step of unlocking will allow people to dine and drink indoorsCredit: LNP

“Looking across to Europe, there are raging infections there and increased levels of the South African variant, and every other day new variants are being reported – one in India, another in Uganda.

“They are going down similar paths, resisting the immune response and are highly transmissible.”

Speaking of the potential risk of the Brazilian variant spreading in the UK, Prof Young said: “I think the worry is, if people are bringing in the P1 variant that it could be more resistant to current vaccines and spread a bit more. 

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“This is why – in terms of opening up – we need to be more careful; social distancing, not crowding outside, wearing masks in low ventilated areas.

“We need to be vigilant. The virus is still out there, there are lots of people not vaccinated, and one dose doesn’t give you full protection.”

Third wave could still cost thousands of lives

Professor Jeremy Brown, a government vaccine adviser as member of the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation, said if “control of the virus is lost”, a third wave in the UK should be restricted by vaccines.

“But when I say relatively restricted, what I mean is that a big third wave could still end up with 30,000 to 50,000 deaths, potentially, if it was a similar sort of size to the previous waves that we’ve had”, he told BBC Radio 4.

“So although the vaccines are important, there are the components to controlling this virus that are important and that is the social distancing measures that we have.”

The first dose of a vaccine has been given to 32 million people.

Scientists say the number of people who refuse the jab, or cannot have it, is enough to cause another outbreak when restrictions are lifted.

Prof Brown said “the bigger the proportion of the population that are vaccinated, the less we will need in a way of social distancing”. 

Similarly, Dr Peter Drobac, a former assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, warned there will be a spike in cases as Brits enjoy their new-found freedoms, which could delay the lockdown easing.

“Vaccinations are so important, but they alone won’t be enough,” he said.

“Here in the UK we still face a risk of another surge if we’re not very careful about how we open up.

 

 

“The vaccination is more effective at protecting us when case rates are very low, as they are now, versus when they’re very high.”

He said the surge of cases in Chile is an example of people “letting down their guard” before the impact of vaccines had kicked in.

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It echoed comments from former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King, who told Sky News yesterday: “Chile is a country where the rate of vaccination amongst the population was third highest in the world, they were ahead of us in terms of the number of people who have had the vaccine, and they’re suddenly now into a third wave.”

He added: “From the point of view of the population itself, we’re all dying to get out of lockdown.

“From the point of view of the epidemic, I think it’s all a little bit more worrying.”

It comes after the Prime Minister urged the nation to “behave responsibly” as life took another step back towards normality yesterday.

Boris Johnson said: “I urge everyone to continue to behave responsibly and remember ‘Hands, face, space and fresh air’ to suppress Covid as we push on with our vaccination programme.”

Outdoors drinking in beer gardens and the streets made a comeback yesterday, and indoor gyms, swimming pools, nail salons and zoos also welcomed customers back.

Meanwhile, experts have warned of the “unconscionable” thought of the NHS seeing normal levels of patients coming into hospital. 

A&E attendances have increased since Covid cases have come down, but social distancing measures are still in place on wards.

It means A&E is facing the threat of dangerous overcrowding, which could spill out into ambulance queues – both of which increase the risk of catching Covid and of wose patient care, the Independent reported.

Dr Adrian Boyle, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, warned: “The idea that we go back to normal is simply unconscionable. It’s actually worse than before in terms of what this will mean for crowding.

“We are worried as lockdown eases we’re going to see an increase in demand, and still a fairly constrained and inflexible bed base.”

The A&E consultant said the delays in treatment for millions of people during the pandemic meant patients are now returning to hospital with their health concerns.

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