The UK entered 2021, with one vaccine being rolled out in great numbers, whilst another vaccine was to be rolled out this week (indeed, the first person to receive the Oxford vaccine, was an 82 year old man) and yet there remain fears over some of the government’s policies. In particular the fact that travel is still allowed and borders are still technically open.
These concerns come as Health Secretary, Matt Hancock formally admitted that ministers were incredibly concerned about the South African Variant of the coronavirus. It seems these concerns have been validated by members of the Oxford Vaccine team admitting that the variant is more likely to evade the vaccine than the Kent variant.
With cases continuing to rise in the UK, largely thanks to the Kent variant of the coronavirus, the admission by Sir John Bell, the professor of medicine at Oxford that the South African variant should ‘cause a great deal of worry’ will not be reassuring to anyone.
Expanding on why the variant should be of greater concern, Bell said. “The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein. If you get an immune response that protects you, one of the ways it protects you is it gets in the way of the binding event. You rely on antibodies to bind to that domain to stop the virus entering your cells.”
This means that if the virus changes, the mechanism that prevents the virus from entering one’s cells may not work. As Bell explained. “If you mess around with that you’re in trouble. The real question is are the vaccines sufficient to neutralise the virus. Or, in the presence of the mutations, will they be disabled?”
Whilst Bell believes that the vaccine will be effective against the Kent variant of the virus, he remains unsure about its effectiveness against the South African variant. Though it remains possible for the vaccine to be tweaked without needing to go through full regulatory approval. Such a process would take between a month and six weeks.
Given this, it is intriguing that the UK is still allowing international travel, with there being some suggestions that the government should either implement a total travel ban and the closure of airports or that there should be mandatory testing on arrival. This last suggestion is particularly intriguing given the portrayal of South Korea’s testing and quarantine system at airports which was provided by journalist Raphael Rashid. A portrayal that sharply contrasts with the rather lackadaisical approach taken at Heathrow.
All of this does raise the question, is the UK facing a ticking time bomb, and if so, is our government ready to deal with it? The evidence right now suggests not.