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Covid UK: South African strain 'may make vaccine 50% less effective'

The mutant South African coronavirus variant may make the current crop of vaccines 50 per cent less effective, Matt Hancock has sensationally claimed.

In footage obtained by MailOnline, the Health Secretary warned allowing the variant to become the dominant strain in the UK could ruin Britain’s vaccination drive and send the country ‘back to square one’.

Mr Hancock is understood to have made the astonishing comments during an online webinar with travel agents this week, to the shock of everyone on the call.

He said there was ‘evidence in the public domain’ that the South African variant reduces vaccine efficacy by ‘about 50 per cent’.  Although he followed up by saying: ‘We are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public.’

The South African strain — called B.1.351 — has key mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear might make it difficult for the immune system to recognise. 

These alterations open the door to it being resistant to vaccines, which train the body to spot the spike protein, or natural immunity from previous infection.  

It comes after South African scientists found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to the new variant – raising red flags about possible vaccine resistance. 

The South African version is also though to be at least 60 per cent more infectious than regular Covid and even more transmissible than the Kent variant that ripped through the UK and plunged England into its third national lockdown. 

The South African strain has already been spotted in the UK 73 times, according to the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium UK (COG-UK). Although it is likely to be far more widespread because COG-UK only analyses 10 per cent of random positive samples. 

In footage obtained by MailOnline, Health Secretary Matt Hancock sensationally claimed the mutant South African coronavirus variant makes the current crop of vaccines 50 per cent less effective

In footage obtained by MailOnline, Health Secretary Matt Hancock sensationally claimed the mutant South African coronavirus variant makes the current crop of vaccines 50 per cent less effective

The South African strain ¿ called B.1.351 ¿ has key mutations on its spike protein which make scientists fear might make it hard for the immune system to recognise

The South African strain ¿ called B.1.351 ¿ has key mutations on its spike protein which make scientists fear might make it hard for the immune system to recognise

The South African strain — called B.1.351 — has key mutations on its spike protein which make scientists fear might make it hard for the immune system to recognise

Worrying strains around the world: Since the Covid pandemic began there have been at least six new stains which appear more infectious and have mutations that open the door to vaccine resistance

Worrying strains around the world: Since the Covid pandemic began there have been at least six new stains which appear more infectious and have mutations that open the door to vaccine resistance

Worrying strains around the world: Since the Covid pandemic began there have been at least six new stains which appear more infectious and have mutations that open the door to vaccine resistance 

The video of Mr Hancock’s web chat surfaced on a private Facebook page for travel agents. The Health Secretary was seen chatting from his London home, where he is self-isolating after being alerted by NHS Covid-19 app on Tuesday.

Talking about the possibility of summer holidays being on the cards this year, Mr Hancock, said: ‘Last year, the travel restrictions were based on basically number of cases. When an area had a low number of cases then travel was fine.

‘The complication we’ve got now is the new vaccine makes things better here, but the new variants put that at risk.

‘Because if you have a variant that gets round the vaccine – and there’s evidence in the public domain, although we are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public – that the South African variant reduces by about 50 per cent the vaccine efficacy.

UK bans flights from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo in latest bid to stop South African strain spreading here 

The UK has banned arrivals from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the latest bid to stop the ‘more vaccine resistant’ South African Covid strain taking hold in Britain.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last night announced the ban on arrivals entering the country from the two African nations.

The rule, which comes into force from 4am on Friday, will not apply to returning British and Irish nationals and those with residency rights.

The two countries join several other nations in southern Africa to be slapped with an arrivals ban in the bid to prevent 501Y.V2 from spreading through the UK. 

A similar travel ban was put into place for South Africa last month, and later neighbouring nations after scientists identified the variant.

Since December 23, entry has been banned for people arriving from South Africa, apart from British nationals or residents who have been subject to an isolation period.

On January 9, the same rules were applied to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola, as well as Seychelles and Mauritius.

On January 15, people coming from South America and Portugal were also banned from entering the UK over fears about Brazilian strains which have similar mutations.

‘We are testing that, we’ve got some of the South African variant in Porton Down [a Public Health England laboratory] and we’re testing it. And we’ve got a clinical trial in South Africa to check the AstraZeneca vaccine works.

‘Nevertheless, if you vaccinate the entire population and then you get in a new variant that evaded the vaccine, then you’d be back to square one.

‘And so tougher international restrictions are the price that for instance Australia has paid for stronger domestic protection, as in more life getting back to normal domestically.’

MailOnline has contacted the Department of Health for comment. 

Dozens of cases of the South African coronavirus variant have already been spotted in Britain.

The Covid-19 Genomics Consortium UK (COG-UK) said 73 Brits have tested positive for the variant so far, with the first case spotted in October last year. 

It’s likely that there have been far more than the number reported because COG-UK only analyses 10 per cent of random positive coronavirus samples. 

In a bid to keep out other worrying variants cropping up around the world, including strains in Brazil which have similar mutations, the UK has closed its borders to anyone who has not tested negative within 72 hours of travelling. It has also outright banned travellers from several countries where the strains are prevalent.

The Government is determined not to let potentially-vaccine resistant variants hamper its immunisation drive, which is on track to give a dose to the 14million most vulnerable Brits by mid-February. 

Today the programme in Britain vaccinated a record 400,000 people after uptake rose for the third day in a row. No10 needs to inject about 350,000 Brits a day to hit the goal next month.

The figures will raise hope that lockdown will start to gradually be eased in spring. But No10 has has pointedly refused to rule out the draconian restrictions lasting into the summer, warning the NHS is still under huge pressure and the curbs will only be lifted when it is ‘safe’.  

The official line from Number 10 is that there is not enough evidence yet to suggest the South African, or even the Brazil strains, are immune-resistant.

But tests and clinical trials are being done by Public Health England, vaccine makers and independent scientists to see if the current iteration of jabs will still be effective against the super-strain.

The strains discovered in Kent, South Africa and Brazil all have mutations of a spike protein, which enables the virus to latch onto human cells and therefore plays a key role in driving infections.

But it is one mutation in particular – known as E484K and present in the variants from South Africa and Brazil – that has experts worried about immunity ‘escape’. 

In a study published on Tuesday, South African academics found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an antibody response to the variant there. One researcher said it was ‘clear that we have a problem’.  

Antibodies are substances made by the immune system that are key to destroying viruses or marking them for destruction by white blood cells.

Antibodies are a major part of the immunity that is created by vaccines – although not the only part – so if the virus continues evolving to escape from them it could mean that vaccines have to be redesigned and given out again.

But experts so far say they have no reason to believe vaccines won’t work, which may be because they produce a stronger immune response than a very mild infection, and because they produce various different types of immune cells.

It’s unclear if Mr Hancock – who does not have a scientific background – stumbled over the 48 per cent figure in the results.  

The Government is determined not to let potentially-vaccine resistant variants hamper its immunisation drive, which is on track to give a dose to the 14million most vulnerable Brits by mid-February

The Government is determined not to let potentially-vaccine resistant variants hamper its immunisation drive, which is on track to give a dose to the 14million most vulnerable Brits by mid-February

The Government is determined not to let potentially-vaccine resistant variants hamper its immunisation drive, which is on track to give a dose to the 14million most vulnerable Brits by mid-February

South African Covid mutation poses ‘re-infection risk’ which could overpower vaccines, study finds 

The South African coronavirus mutation poses a ‘significant re-infection risk’ and could overpower vaccines, new research has found. 

Researchers in South Africa tested the variant against blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients.

They found it was resistant to neutralising antibodies built up from prior infection, meaning that it could also defy immunity provided by the current crop of jabs. 

‘Here we show that the 501Y.V2 lineage, which contains nine spike mutations and rapidly emerged in South Africa during the second half of 2020, is largely resistant to neutralising antibodies elicited by infection with previously circulating lineages,’ the authors said.

‘This suggests that, despite the many people who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 globally and are presumed to have accumulated some level of immunity, new variants such as 501Y.V2 pose a significant re-infection risk.’

The researchers added that this might also affect the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment for Covid-19.

They also referred to ‘implications’ for vaccines developed based on immune responses to the virus’s spike protein. 

It comes after Sir Patrick Vallance admitted on Thursday there were still ‘question marks’ over whether the vaccines would work against the South African and Brazilian strains. 

No10’s chief scientific adviser added it was ‘quite likely’ Britons may need to get a Covid jab every winter for ‘at least a few years’.

However, Sir Patrick was able to say emphatically that the so-called Kent variant, first found in England, would be dealt with by the vaccines. 

Sir Patrick said even if a new variant is able to get around the current vaccines, it was going to be ‘really quite easy’ to tweak them to target the new versions.     

Meanwhile, the UK has banned arrivals from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the latest bid to stop the ‘more vaccine resistant’ South African Covid strain taking hold in Britain.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last night announced the ban on arrivals entering the country from the two African nations. 

The rule, which comes into force from 4am on Friday, will not apply to returning British and Irish nationals and those with residency rights.

Mr Shapps tweeted: ‘To help to stop the spread of the Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa, we are banning all arrivals from Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo from 4am tomorrow. 

‘All passengers from these countries except British and Irish Nationals and third country nationals with residents rights will be denied entry.

‘We are continuing to monitor Covid-19 rates and new strains of the virus across the globe, this alongside the suspension of travel corridors and pre-departure testing will help protect our borders.’

The two countries join several other nations in southern Africa to be slapped with an arrivals ban in the bid to prevent 501Y.V2 from spreading through the UK.

A similar travel ban was put into place for South Africa last month, and later neighbouring nations after scientists identified the variant.

Since December 23, entry has been banned for people arriving from South Africa, apart from British nationals or residents who have been subject to an isolation period.

On January 9, the same rules were applied to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola, as well as Seychelles and Mauritius.

On January 15, people coming from South America and Portugal were also banned from entering the UK over fears about Brazilian strains which have similar mutations.

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