Vaccine-beating variant is ‘realistic possibility’, say scientists, amid calls for contingency plans to be revealed
Ministers are being pressed to reveal what contingency plans are in place to deal with a future Covid variant that evades current vaccines, amid warnings from scientific advisers that such an outcome could set the battle against the pandemic back a year or more.
Recent papers produced by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have suggested that the arrival of a variant that evades vaccines is a “realistic possibility”. Sage backed continued work on new vaccines that reduce infection and transmission more than current jabs, the creation of more vaccine-production facilities in the UK and lab-based studies to predict evolution of variants.
With the arrival of a new variant seen as one of the main dangers that could intensify the crisis once again, prominent scientific figures stressed the risks. Prof Graham Medley, a member of Sage and a leader of the government’s Covid modelling group, said it was “clearly something that the planners and scientists should take very seriously as it would put us back a long way”.
“It is not that different to the planning that needs to be done between pandemics – a new variant that was able to overcome immunity significantly would be essentially a new virus,” he said. “The advantage would be that we know we can generate vaccines against this virus – and relatively quickly. The disadvantage is that we would be back to the same situation we were in a year ago, depending on how much impact current immunity had against a new variant. Hopefully, evolution is slow, so that new variants arise that are only marginally evasive rather than one big jump.” Dr Marc Baguelin, from Imperial College’s Covid-19 response team and a member of the government’s SPI-M modelling group, said preventing the importation of variants of concern with “moderate to high immune-escape properties would be critical, as these could lead to future waves orders of magnitude larger than the ones experienced so far”.
“It is unlikely that such a new virus evades entirely all immunity from past infection or vaccines,” he said. “Some immunity should remain at least for the most severe outcomes such as death or hospitalisation. We would most likely be able to update the current vaccines to include the emerging strain.
“But doing so would take months and means that we might need to reimpose restrictions if there were a significant public health risk. The amount of restrictions would be a political decision and would need to be proportionate with how much this virus would evade current vaccines.”
It comes with a further loosening of restrictions in England on Monday when fully vaccinated people and under-18s will no longer be legally required to self-isolate if they come into close contact with someone with Covid. They will be advised, but not obliged, to take a PCR test instead. Daily Covid cases have been hovering around the 30,000 mark. The latest figures, from 13 August, showed that a further 32,700 had tested positive and another 100 deaths were reported.
Meanwhile, all 16- and 17-year-olds in England will be offered a first dose of vaccine over the next week to give them some protection before schools return in September. Health secretary Sajid Javid urged older teenagers not to delay. “Get your jabs as soon as you can so we can continue to safely live with this virus and enjoy our freedoms by giving yourself, your family and your community the protection they need,” he said.
Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser Dominic Cummings has already called on the government to publish a “variant escape vaccine contingency plan” and suggested MPs should explore ways of forcing ministers to do so. One scientist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would like to see the publication of the national risk assessment relating to Covid-19 contingency plans.
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, is backing the move. “It is critical that people have confidence in Boris Johnson’s Covid strategy and trust him not to repeat the same mistakes of the last 18 months,” she said. “Through refusing to self-isolate, breaking their own rules and making mistakes that have cost lives, the government has lost public trust. Transparency is the only way to begin winning that trust back.”
Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, said: “It very much makes sense to be prepared. Scotland is setting up its standing committee on pandemics. It will be interesting to see what emerges on a UK level.
“In the longer-term we need a systematic inquiry into what went wrong (and right) so we are prepared and also so that we can institute systemic changes to protect us. The pandemic has been like a barium meal which has exposed so many deficiencies in our society. We can no longer pretend we are not aware of them. This has been a deafening wake-up call. Let’s make sure we don’t press the snooze button.”
Government sources said Public Health England and others were monitoring the situation through rapid surveillance and genomic sequencing of the virus. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the vaccination programme had built a “wall of defence”.
“We are committed to protecting the progress of the vaccine rollout and our world-leading genomics capabilities are at the forefront of global efforts to stay ahead of variants, with over half a million samples genome-sequenced so far,” they said.
Official figures show the UK recorded 93 new Covid-related deaths and 29,520 new cases yesterday.“ Data from Public Health England shows two doses of Covid-19 vaccines are more than 90% effective against hospitalisation from the Delta variant, the dominant strain in the UK.”