Professor Neil Ferguson warned the South African strain had taken root in Europe
Professor Neil Ferguson today called for tighter border controls with Europe to keep out the dangerous South African of coronavirus amid fears it could undermine Britain’s vaccine roll-out.
The SAGE adviser – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because his gloomy modelling of the first wave spooked ministers into the spring shutdown – warned while the strain had failed to take root in the UK it was behind up to 20 per cent of infections in some countries on the continent.
He added immunity from AstraZeneca’s jab is ‘particularly vulnerable’ to the mutant strain, raising the risk of a spike in cases.
South Africa has already suspended its use citing concerns the shot is not effective enough.
Nonetheless, experts are still confident the jab is strong enough to protect the vast majority of people from falling severely ill with the B.1.351 strain.
Britain has already spotted 469 cases of the variant, sparking surge-testing in dozens of postcodes in a desperate attempt to root out the virus.
The warning comes as Boris Johnson is today set to unveil a ‘traffic light’ system to allow foreign holidays, with countries ranked red, amber or green.
Government sources say each nation will be categorised using criteria including the percentage of the population jabbed, the rate of infection, any emerging variants and their access to reliable data and genomic sequencing.
But ministers caution it is still too early to say which countries sun-seekers will be able to visit – with the blanket ban on travel in place until May 17 at the earliest.
More than 31million Britons have already received their first dose of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, or more than half the adult population. But the EUs anaemic inoculation drive has left countries on the continent squabbling over scant supplies of doses.
The Prime Minister will unveil a traffic light system to allow foreign holidays today
Studies suggest the AstraZeneca jab may be ‘particularly vulnerable’ to the South African variant, officially known as B.1.351
More than 31million people in Britain have already received their first dose of the vaccine. But on the continent many countries are far further behind
IS ASTRAZENECA’S JAB REALLY MORE VULNERABLE TO THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT?
Scientists have warned that immunity from the AstraZeneca jab may be more vulnerable to the South African variant of coronavirus compared to other jabs.
Clinical trials showed it was 79 per cent effective – at blocking symptomatic Covid – against the initial virus, and stopped hospitalisation or death in all the 32,000 participants.
But recent studies have suggested it offers only partial immunity against the South African variant.
One study involving 2,000 adults under 65 in South Africa found it did not protect against mild-to-moderate infections with the variant.
And a second paper from Oxford University published last month found the AstraZeneca jab produced seven times fewer antibodies against the strain compared to the original virus.
On the other hand, Pfizer has claimed its jab offers 100 per cent protection against the South African variant.
In a trial involving 8,000 participants they recorded nine infections with the variant, all in the unvaccinated group.
But experts have alleged the trial was ‘too small’ for concrete conclusions to be drawn from.
Moderna’s jab – which is set to be distributed in the UK later this month – is currently being tested against the South African variant.
The Imperial College London epidemiologist stopped short of calling for an outright ban on travel to Europe, but told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that ministers should be cautious when they loosen restrictions on trips abroad.
‘I think the key thing is the risk of importing variants which might undermine our vaccination programme and the one we’re particularly concerned about at the moment is the South African variant called B.1.351,’ he said.
‘The concern here… is the proportion of cases reported in a number of European countries which are this variant is now up to anywhere from four to five per cent in France and up to 17 per cent, nearly 20 per cent up in Luxembourg.
‘So rather than some of the “red list” countries which are far away, I think where the real policy challenge lies in terms of mitigating risk is around what to do around travel to Europe and back.
‘I think that (testing everyone from European countries) would be sensible and reconsidering the exemptions in place at the moment.’
He added: ‘While we’ve done very well in the vaccination programme so far we’re only about half way through and we’re very dependant on the AstraZeneca vaccine at the moment.
‘The AstraZeneca vaccine as we know is particularly vulnerable to the South African variant.
‘As time goes on and we can roll-out the Novavax vaccine, and Moderna, which are perhaps less vulnerable then we’ll have more leeway so it is a balancing act.’
Recent studies have suggested the AstraZeneca jab offers only partial immunity against the troublesome variant.
One paper involving 2,000 adults under 65 in South Africa found it did not protect against mild-to-moderate infections with the variant.
And a second from Oxford University found it triggered seven times fewer antibodies against the strain compared to the original virus.
On the other hand, Pfizer has claimed its jab is 100 per cent effective against the variant based on a study on 8,000 people in South Africa.
But some scientists have said this sample size is ‘too small’ to draw concrete conclusions from, and that there’s still a risk people could catch the South African variant after being inoculated with their jab.
The top adviser also said: ‘We are detecting cases of the South African variant almost every week within the UK, so it is not something we can keep out forever.
‘But keeping it out for as long as we can, and keeping it at a low level for as long as we can… would be beneficial.’
Professor Ferguson also called for ‘everyone’ entering the UK to be tested for Covid, to minimise the risk of a dangerous variant entering the country.
An exemption list – including lorry drivers and those travelling on Government business – allows those mentioned not to quarantine or get a swab upon arrival.
Professor Ferguson also revealed that he got the AstraZeneca jab against the virus.
There is also concern over the Brazilian variant, P.1, which studies have suggested could also dodge vaccine-triggered immunity.
There have been only 32 cases identified in the UK so far, which have also sparked surge-testing. Virologists say the low numbers show it has yet to take root in the country.
The ‘traffic light’ system will see travellers returning from green countries not having to isolate, although they will need to have tests before and after they fly.
Those coming back from red list countries would have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days, however, while arrivals from amber destinations will have to isolate at home.
Britons will be allowed to holiday in countries with high vaccination rates this summer, Boris Johnson will say today (File image)
A Government source told the Daily Mail last night: ‘It is too early to predict which countries will be on which list over the summer. As such, we continue to advise people not to book summer holidays abroad.’
One scientist said yesterday the system could be too simplistic to stop the spread of new cases.
Professor Gabriel Scally, a member of the Independent Sage committee, said: ‘It is not quite as simple as looking at what the situation is in an individual country from which a flight originated. We know people will mix together from all over the world, and this is what spurred the autumn surges of cases.’