Covid: South African variant does not have 'transmissibility advantage' over other variants

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam says the Kent variant is more dominant than the South African strain in the UK. Credit: PA

The South African strain of coronavirus does not enjoy "transmissibility advantage" over other variants, the deputy chief medical officer for England has said.

Speaking at the Downing Street briefing, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said it's unlikely the South African variant will become dominant in the coming months, unlike the strain which emerged last year in Kent which is now more dominant.

He said: “We have small numbers of the South African variant in the UK at the present time.

“And as I’ve said, I’m not seeing, and the early modelling data do not suggest, a transmissibility advantage for this virus.

“It’s not going to kind of overrun or overtake the current B1.1.7 (Kent variant) virus in the next few months, or that is the most likely scenario, that it won’t happen.

“I don’t think that this is something that we should be concerned about right at this point in time."

Responding to concern that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab was less effective against the South African strain, he said that if it became more prevalent, people in high risk groups may need an annual or biennial booster.

“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.

He said people should not wait until a South African variant vaccine was ready, but get the vaccine now.

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"To people who are on the edge going 'well should I have this current vaccine or should I hang on for a South African variant vaccine when it arrives,' my advice to you is very simple, do not delay, have the vaccine that protects you agains the current threat, and don't worry, you can be re-vaccinated," Prof Van-Tam said.

His comments came after South Africa suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after a small trial among young adults found that there was a reduced level of protection against infection and mild disease.

A total of 147 people are now known to have been infected with the South African variant, although that figure is four days old and further testing has since taken place.

Prof Van-Tam said a number of vaccine manufacturers – including Pfizer – had released data suggesting they still had a “substantial effect” in reducing serious illness from the South African variant and he believed the same was likely to be the case for the AstraZeneca version.

If the South African variant did become more prevalent in the UK, he said people in high risk groups could be given an updated vaccine – with only a single shot likely to be required.

“You can be re-vaccinated and we are taking a lot of steps behind the scenes to ensure that we can be in that position,” he said.

“Just as variations to the virus were inevitable, it ‘s almost inevitable that we would at some point need variations to the vaccine. This is not a big fright, it is not a big surprise.”