The South Africa coronavirus variant could mutate further if left unchecked, potentially making it more resistant to existing vaccines, a senior Public Health England official has warned.
Dr Susan Hopkins said she expected vaccines to be effective against the variant in terms of reducing hospitalisation and death, and above the minimum level set by the World Health Organisation.
But she warned that if the South Africa variant’s spread is left unchecked there is a risk it could mutate further and “diminish the effectiveness of vaccines” further.
Experts are looking to urgently test 80,000 people in England for Covid-19 after it emerged that the variant may have spread in some regions.
Health officials said 11 people had been identified over the last five or six days who have tested positive for the variant, but who have no links to South Africa.
Hopkins suggested it was vital to crack down on the spread of the variant.
She told a Downing Street press briefing: “We do not have evidence that it’s causing more severe disease than the variants that are circulating in the UK.
“But what we do know is that it’s got slightly more mutations or more mutations in the part of the protein, the spike protein, that is causing it perhaps to have diminished the effectiveness of vaccines, but still very good.
“And we want to prevent that spreading because what we want to do is to prevent viruses with mutations being able to acquire more mutations, which they will do over time.”
At the briefing, health secretary Matt Hancock urged people in the areas where extra cases of the variant have been found to “take extra special precautions” under lockdown rules.
He listed the postcode areas where the strain has been found: W7 (Ealing, west London), N17 (Tottenham, north London), CR4 (Mitcham, Surrey), WS2 (Walsall), ME15 (Maidstone), EN10 (Broxbourne), GU21 (Woking) and PR9 (Southport).
Asked whether he had ruled out tighter restrictions where the South African variant had been identified, the health secretary said: “Of course we’re always looking at what we need to do, there is already a national lockdown in place that says that you should not travel unless it’s absolutely necessary and that you should stay local and we expect people to adhere to that everywhere.
“But in particular, in the postcodes that I’ve set out where people should stay at home unless they absolutely have to leave, and anybody even thinking about stretching the rules in those areas must not.
“Now, of course, further measures are always there, but we already have this very strong set of rules, indeed very strong laws in place, against people travelling unnecessarily, unless that travel is essential.
“So what I’d say is that if you’re in one of the postcode areas I’ve set out, if you’re in an area where the new variant has been found, then stay at home and let’s get this new variant totally under control.”
Hancock also warned that there could be more cases than are known.
“It is not straightforward and as you say there may be further cases we don’t know about yet and our genomic sequencing is in place to try to spot them,” he said.
“The most important thing is that people in the postcode areas outlined need to take extra special precautions.
“It is absolutely vital that people in those areas minimise all social contact and get a test when the opportunity arises.
“It’s a big effort getting this new variant… essentially finding every single case of it, that is the goal.”