JOHN NAISH: We face a life or death game against the mutant viruses

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Just when we thought we were about to defeat Covid-19 by launching our Oxford vaccine, an alarming strain of the virus has emerged to strike fear into the ministers and experts fighting the pandemic.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted yesterday that he is ‘incredibly worried’ about the fast-spreading mutant strain that has emerged in South Africa.

The new variant appears to have evolved weapons that may defeat both the Oxford jab – finally launched in the UK yesterday – and Pfizer’s vaccine, which was first administered a month ago.

Hancock warned that the South African strain may cause even more problems than the strain first discovered in Kent and which is blamed for propelling the surge in infections currently crippling Britain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) admitted yesterday that he is ‘incredibly worried’ about the fast-spreading mutant strain that has emerged in South Africa

Indeed, several countries – including the UK – have now banned all flights from South Africa.

The Health Secretary is not alone in his concerns. One of the Oxford vaccine team’s key members, Professor Sir John Bell, has also expressed concern.

Nevertheless, cynics are swarming on social media to accuse Hancock of fearmongering in order to frighten the country into tighter lockdowns.

A cool look at the evidence suggests that Mr Hancock is wise to be alarmed. The South African mutant, ‘501.V2’, has already been found in two places in Britain.

South Africa has now confirmed 1.1 million Covid-19 infections and almost 30,000 deaths since the outbreak began in March.

Doctors there are already struggling with the new strain, which seems to spread far more easily than its predecessors.

Swabs from patients there show that the mutant strain multiplies far more vigorously in the nose and mouth – which can make it easier to spread via talking and breathing.

This boosted virulence may also defeat robustly youthful immune defences. South Africa’s health minister has warned that ‘young, previously healthy people are now becoming very sick’.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson after addressing the Nation from inside No.10 Downing Street, on the new Covid-19 Lockdown restrictions on Jan 4

Perhaps most worrying of all, the mutant strain could beat antibodies that people had developed by surviving previous Covid-19 infections. Doctors are now reporting a growing numbers of patients contracting Covid-19 a second time.

Such reinfections were considered exceedingly rare. Now, patients are reportedly catching the new mutant within three months of suffering from earlier strains.

Laboratory reports show that the strain has changed its structure to make it resistant to antibodies from those who survived previous Covid-19 infections.

This is why, sadly, it may beat our current vaccines. The approved jabs protect against the virus by ‘teaching’ our immune systems to recognise proteins on the virus’s surface as targets for destruction.

The South African strain appears to have altered its signature surface proteins in two ways, making it unrecognisable to immune systems that have encountered earlier strains of the virus.

The Kent mutation, meanwhile, has changed its signature protein only in one way, which makes it easier to attack with existing vaccines. As South African scientists warn that the new strain is now dominant there, could the same happen here?

The new variant appears to have evolved weapons that may defeat both the Oxford jab – finally launched in the UK yesterday (pictured) – and Pfizer’s vaccine, which was first administered a month ago

Mr Hancock has said: ‘We’ve got to keep an eagle eye on this one, because it is even harder to deal with than the UK [Kent] variant. That’s why we are restricting all movement from South Africa and insisting that anybody who’s been to South Africa self-isolates.’

However, experts such as professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist at the University of Warwick, suspect that the two cases seen in the UK are the tip of the iceberg.

‘You can identify it in a couple of people… but there’ll be more, for sure,’ he warns. ‘Some cases will be from people spreading it in the UK. Some will be from other introductions from South Africa.’

However, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, says his team is trying to establish if current vaccines can beat the new mutants. He believes there is still ‘room to manoeuvre’, because the vaccines worked ‘much better than any of us thought they were going to’.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, says his team is trying to establish if current vaccines can beat the new mutants. He said: 'We’re now in a game of cat and mouse. Because these are not the only two variants we’re going to see. We’re going to see lots of variants’

‘I think it’s unlikely that these mutations will turn off the effects of vaccines entirely – I think the jabs will still have a residual effect,’ he said.

Sir John believes it is ‘perfectly possible’ to adjust existing vaccines quickly, ‘so everybody should stay calm. It’s going to be fine.’

He added: ‘But we’re now in a game of cat and mouse. Because these are not the only two variants we’re going to see. We’re going to see lots of variants.’

‘Cat-and-mouse’ sounds like a slow game. The reality will be much more frantic, given the speed at which mutant strains of Covid are emerging, and thus the speed at which scientists must race to fight them.

The various mutants and their swift rise reinforces the need for mass vaccinations and lockdowns.

The more people that Covid infects, the more opportunities it has to mutate – which often happens when the virus swaps genes with other viral infections inside the patient.

Keeping infection numbers down, therefore, inhibits Covid’s ability to acquire lethal new tricks.

Nevertheless, as Professor Bell predicts, many more mutants may still arise. Vaccination against Covid-19 looks set to mirror flu-jab campaigns: they will be an annual event, aimed to protect against each year’s worst new strains.

It looks most likely, too, that jabs will never eradicate Covid-19 in the way they killed smallpox.

Instead of cat-and-mouse, we appear fated continually to be playing a life-or-death game of whack-a-mole, against a fast-moving and wily target.