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UK residents reassured over Oxford vaccine

By EARLE GALE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-02-09 09:22

Margaret Brownsea from Southampton receives the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from a member of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service at Basingstoke Fire Station, in Basingstoke, Britain on Feb 4, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

Scientists claim jab works well against mutations that are common in Britain

People in the United Kingdom should not be concerned about reports that question the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against a mutant strain of the novel coronavirus first identified in South Africa, Britain's vaccines minister has said.

Nadhim Zahawi said the variant is not a problem in Britain and noted that the vaccine, which was developed by scientists at the University of Oxford and the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is highly effective against both the main strain of the novel coronavirus and mutant strains that are common in the UK.

He made the comment after South Africa put its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab on hold after a study by the University of Oxford and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, suggested the jab offered only "minimal protection" against mild and moderate forms of illness caused by the variant that is responsible for 90 percent of new cases in South Africa.

The Reuters news agency said South Africa's health minister, Zweli Mkhize, had asked scientists to advise the government on the best way forward.

Zahawi, writing to The Daily Telegraph newspaper, said scientists in the UK will monitor the situation and constantly update vaccines so they are effective against variants found locally. But he said the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab continues to be right for Britain.

"While it is right and necessary to prepare for the deployment of an updated vaccine, we can take confidence from the current rollout and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease," he wrote, while adding that vaccines that do not offer complete protection may still have "good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalization, and death".

Edward Argar, the UK's minister of state for health at the Department of Health and Social Care, said on the BBC's Breakfast program on Monday that only 147 cases of the variant first identified in South Africa have been found in the UK.

Despite it being "a very small number", he said the government will "keep a very close eye on" the situation.

However, Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease expert and advisor to the government, noted on Radio 4's Today program that the strain that is dominant in South Africa could already be more widespread in the UK than the government thinks. He said its prevalence will not be known until "surge testing" has been completed in parts of England where cases have been identified.

Tildesley said lockdown restrictions in the UK may need to stay in place for longer than hoped if it transpires that the variant is indeed widespread, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is proven to be less than fully protective against it.

In the meantime, the UK is continuing its vaccination program, which is dominated by the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. The nation has, so far, administered an initial dose to more than 12 million people who it believes to be vulnerable to death or serious illness from COVID-19. London has set itself the target of vaccinating all 15 million people in its high-risk groups by Feb 15. Currently, the nation of 67 million is vaccinating around half a million people a day.

The jabs it is administering will be available to everyone living in the country, the government has said, regardless of immigration status.

But with the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab's effectiveness against a specific variant now being questioned, The Guardian newspaper has reported that a leading vaccine scientist has said the government may need to rethink its long-term aim of developing herd immunity through its vaccination program.

Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who was the chief investigator during South Africa's trials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, told the paper the government should "recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic virus".

Madhi said ministers should now "shift the focus from the goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at-risk individuals in the population against severe disease".

The prospect of other mutant strains being brought into the UK was highlighted by The Telegraph newspaper on Monday, which said up to 205,000 passengers from countries with confirmed cases involving new variants will arrive in the UK before the nation begins mandatory supervised quarantine on Feb 15.

The government has reserved 28,000 hotel rooms for people arriving from 33 high-risk countries and expects around 1,500 arrivals each day to be diverted toward the quarantine facilities, an initiative opposition politicians have said should have been started sooner.

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