Three reasons not to panic about the South African variant, according to Jonathan Van-Tam

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08: Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam speaks during a virtual press conference at 10 Downing Street to give an update on the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic on February 8, 2021 in London, England. Undocumented migrants in Britain will still be able to get Covid vaccines without being subject to status checks, the government said on Monday. (Photo by Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Prof Jonathan Van-Tam provided reassurance about the South African coroanavirus variant at Monday's Downing Street press conference. (Tolga Akmen/pool/Getty Images)

Given all the talk about the South African coronavirus variant, it’d be understandable if you’ve been feeling more than a little worried in recent days.

Concerns, for example, have been raised that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may be less effective against the variant.

Experts have also warned it could already be widespread in the UK.

Enter Jonathan Van-Tam.

England’s deputy chief medical officer, who has been one of the UK’s most effective communicators during the pandemic, agreed the headlines are “a bit scary”.

But he also assured: “I don’t think this is something we should be concerned about right at this point in time.”

Watch: Medical chief allays fears of South African variant

In a speech at Monday’s Downing Street press conference, Prof Van-Tam gave the following three reasons why there’s no need to panic about the South African variant.

1. ‘No reason to think it will overtake Kent variant’

Prof Van-Tam pointed out the South African variant of the virus is dominant in South Africa – and not in the UK, where only 147 cases have been identified.

Currently, the UK’s dominant version of COVID-19 is the Kent variant, which caused the huge spike in infections before Christmas, but has not been resistant to the vaccines.

Prof Van-Tam said there is “no reason” to think the South African variant will “overtake” the Kent variant.

He said: “You will know from what we saw before Christmas that if it [a variant] has a distinct transmissibility advantage over the predecessor, then it can establish itself very quickly indeed.

“But early data on modelling of [the South African variant] does not suggest this is so.

“Because of that, there is no reason to think the South African variant will catch up or overtake our current virus in the next few months, and that’s a really important point.”

Prof Van-Tam reiterated the UK's “immediate threat” is the current virus, and that vaccines are effective against it.

2. ‘Vaccines are still rather likely to prevent severe disease'

Prof Van-Tam said preliminary data from the vaccine manufacturers who have deals with the British government “do give me confidence there is still likely to be a substantial effect of the current vaccines in terms of reducing serious illness, even if infections are not as well prevented”.

A study of about 2,000 people had suggested the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab only offers minimal protection against mild disease of the South African variant.

But Prof Van-Tam said of this: “The South African trial was on young adults and reported mild disease and a reduced level of protection against infection.

"But that doesn’t change my view that it is still rather likely to have an effect on severe disease.”

He suggested people in high-risk groups will be given booster jabs – either annually or biennially – as the vaccines are updated to cope with new mutations of the virus.

3. ‘This is not a big surprise’

“Just as variations to the virus were inevitable,” Prof Van-Tam said, “it’s almost inevitable that at some point we would need variations to the vaccine.

“This is not a big fright, it’s not a big surprise. We have been anticipating it for quite some time.”

Read more:

Facebook to help people find out where and when they'll be vaccinated – this is how it'll work

Tory MP accused of peddling 'dangerous misconceptions' about COVID in live interview

He went on: “If you read the headlines and feel a bit panicky, or you think there is some kind of immediate problem, please try and be reassured.

“The better watchwords are ‘concerned’ (of course we’re concerned), ‘vigilance’ (yes, we’re hyper vigilant) and ‘preparation’ (there is a lot going on behind the scenes that will become clearer over the course of time)."

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown