There are 147 known cases of the South African variant of coronavirus in the UK, a minister has said.
Junior health minister Edward Argar revealed the figure on Monday, after a new study suggested that the Oxford/Astra Zeneca COVID vaccine does not offer effective protection against mild or moderate illness caused by the variant.
Argar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The latest figures I have, which may be a day or so out, is 147 cases in this country.
“So it’s still very much not the dominant strain here, the dominant strain here is very much the historic one, the one we’ve been dealing with since last year, and to a large degree the so-called Kent variant.”
Watch: Health minister says South Africa vaccine pause only ‘short-term’
In a separate interview with Sky News on Monday, Argar was questioned about the news that South Africa put its rollout of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca jab on hold after a study of around 2,000 people suggested it only offers minimal protection against mild disease from the South Africa variant.
The minister said there is “no evidence” that the vaccine is not effective at preventing severe illness from coronavirus, which is “ultimately what we’re seeking with these vaccines.”
Argar pointed out that the “dominant strains in this country are not the South African strain”, with “only a small number of cases of that”.
However Dr Mike Tildesley, who advises the government as a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said it was “very possible” the South African variant is already quite widely spread in the UK.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The fact we’re starting to see cases in the hundreds, albeit in the low hundreds, means that unless we’ve really got on top of this quickly, I would expect we could see quite a few more cases coming over the next few weeks and possibly quite a little bit more widespread, so it’s a real concern.”
Speaking later on Monday during a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility, Boris Johnson said he is “very confident” in the coronavirus vaccines currently in use in the UK.
He told reporters: “I think it’s important for people to bear in mind that 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.”
South Africa has 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and had been due to start its programme next week before news of the study by the University of the Witwatersrand, which has not yet been peer reviewed.
South Africa is to offer vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in the coming weeks.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of South Africa’s ministerial advisory committee on COVID-19, said the study could not show that the vaccine is effective against all levels of seriousness of the South African variant.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What the study results really tell us is that, in a relatively young age group demographic – with very low prevalence of morbidities such as hypertension and diabetes etc – the vaccine does not protect against mild to moderate infection.”
He said its effectiveness against serious infection could possibly be extrapolated based on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses “similar technology” to Oxford and has similar immune effects.
“Extrapolating from that, there’s still some hope that the AstraZeneca vaccine might well perform as well as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a different age demographic that are at highest risk of severe disease,” he said.
In his interview on Monday morning, Argar said it “would not be unreasonable” to have annual coronavirus booster jabs to protect against new strains that emerge.
He told Sky News: “What we would all expect is every year we have our flu booster jabs, or our flu jabs, it would not be unreasonable to suggest something similar here.”
Watch: South Africa suspends Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine rollout