New coronavirus variant is 'not doomsday', leading UK scientist says

A nurse prepares to take a sample at a COVID 19 testing centre in the car park of the Bowhouse Community Centre in Grangemouth as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
A scientist has said that the new highly infectious and potentially vaccine resistant variant of Covid-19 found in South Africa is not 'doomsday'. (PA Images)

The new coronavirus variant is not a doomsday scenario because the UK is better at controlling the virus than before, a leading UK scientist has said.

Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, Professor James Naismith, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that people "shouldn't despair".

"If it spreads more quickly then, yes, it will get here - the travel ban will delay its arrival, but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we’ve seen before that it will get here eventually," he said.

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“We shouldn’t despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven’t had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.

“Secondly there are new medicines coming along… these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.

“We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday.”

Care home worker Pillay Jagambrun (left), 61, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in The Vaccination Hub at Croydon University Hospital, south London, on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in the UK's history. Care home workers, NHS staff and people aged 80 and over began receiving the jab this morning.
Scientists and the government have said people getting their booster jabs is still key to keep the virus at bay. (PA Images)

The new variant - called B.1.1529 - has 32 mutations located in its spike protein. Vaccines use spike proteins to provide immunity, and there are concerns that the mutations found mean the virus may make the vaccines less effective.

SAGE Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the architects of the UK's lockdown, described the new strain as "unprecedented".

“The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines," he said.

“There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.

“It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa. The government's move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent."

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Chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, Susan Hopkins, has warned that the new variant was the "most complex" and "most worrying" that we've seen.

On whether the variant had already arrived in the UK, Hopkins said "it's always possible".

"We have no cases identified whatsoever yet, nothing in our genome sequencing," she said.

"So overall, I think the situation is reassuring in-country, but of course, people are arriving every day.”

Government are also among those raising the alarm.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs on Friday that the new variant was a reminder the pandemic is not over.

“Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it," he said.

“It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments Ronapreve.”

He renewed his calls for people to come forward and get vaccinated.

"This variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over," he said.

"We must continue to act with caution and do all we can to keep this virus at bay, including once you’re eligible getting your booster shot."

Transport secretary Grant Shapps echoed the health secretary - rapidly placing most countries affected by the variant on the government's Covid travel red list.

Shapps tweeted late on Thursday evening: "UPDATE: from 12pm tomorrow 6 countries incl South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini & Namibia added to UK’s red list following early detection of the new B.1.1.529 variant abroad."

File photo dated 18/01/21 of passengers waiting in line outside the Testing Centre in the Arrival Hall of Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport. The cost of travel tests from NHS Test and Trace for people who arrive from abroad into the UK is to be cut, the Health Department has said. It is to go down from �88 to �68 for UK travellers who have come from green list countries, or those who have arrived from amber list countries and have been fully vaccinated. Issue date: Friday August 13, 2021.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps rapidly placed South Africa on the redlist on Thursday night. (PA Images)

Adding: "Public safety is our priority. We’re taking this precautionary action to protect the progress we’ve made beating the virus across the country and as ever, we’ll continue to keep our measures under review"

On Friday morning, he told LBC that the new strain is "the most significant variant that has been encountered".

The transport secretary stressed that it was vital for the public to get vaccinated to avoid a repeat performance of the beginning of the pandemic, and that vaccines were the country's "main defence" against the virus.

"We don't want to go back to the bad old days," said Shapps.

A spokesman for the prime minister said the government is calling on people that have arrived from a country on the red list to get tested immediately.

"Anybody who has arrived from any of these countries in the last 10 days, NHS Test and Trace will be contacting them to ask them to take a PCR test," he said.

“But do not wait to be contacted. People shouldn’t wait to be contacted.

“If you have travelled back from one of the six countries in the past 10 days, they should take a PCR test.”

Read more: Is new COVID variant in UK? Does it cause more severe illness? What we know so far about B.1.1.529 strain found in southern Africa