The South Africa variant of coronavirus is unlikely to become dominant in the UK as it does not spread as quickly as the Kent strain, Jonathan Van-Tam has said.
The deputy chief medical officer said the Kent variant, B117, has a “distinct transmissibility advantage” which allowed it to become dominant in the UK.
But “early data” on the South Africa variant “does not suggest that the South African variant has a distinct transmissibility advantage over our current virus”.
“Because of that there is no reason to think the South African variant will catch up, will overtake our current virus in the next few months,” Van-Tam told a Downing Street briefing.
But Van-Tam insisted “our immediate threat is from our current virus and there is now plenty of evidence that the vaccines that we are deploying are effective against our current virus”.
“So from that perspective, please don’t delay if you are called, take the advantage to protect yourself against the clear and present danger, against the immediate threat,” he added.
Van-Tam also said the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was still “rather likely” to have an effect on “serious disease” among people who contract the South African strain.
He said that if the variant did become more prevalent in the UK, people in high-risk groups may need annual or biennial booster jabs.
“Just as variations to the virus were inevitable it’s almost inevitable that at some point we will need variations to the vaccine. This is not a big fright, it is not a big surprise,” he said.
Health secretary Matt Hancock urged people to follow the lockdown rules to decrease the opportunity for the virus to mutate further, with potential implications for the vaccination programme.
“The fewer new cases of coronavirus that we have, the lower the chance of a new variant appearing domestically,” he said.
“So the essential message to stay at home, follow the social distancing rules, is our best defence right now.”