Scientists are ‘not sure’ if the new South African strain of coronavirus will respond properly to a vaccine, a UK Cabinet minister said today.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said the new variant was the reason for finally imposing pre-flight tests on arrivals from abroad.
People arriving in England and Scotland, and probably the whole UK, will need a negative Covid result from next week or face a £500 fine.
A debate has been ongoing in recent days about how the ‘501Y.V2’ variant, thought to have originated in South Africa, will respond.
New research today said the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine does protect against the variant – as well as the second more transmissable variant rampant in the UK.
The pharmaceutical giant carried out lab tests on the strains alongside researchers from the University of Texas.
But Mr Shapps said there were still fears a vaccine could be rendered “less useful” if other strains make it into the UK.
Explaining the new travel policy, he told BBC Breakfast: “The reason we are very keen to do it now is there’s this new variant which you may have heard about called the South African variant, which is causing great concern with the scientists.
“They’re not sure whether for example the vaccine will be able to deal with it in the first place.
“And we’re very very keen to try to keep that out.”
Speaking to LBC he added: “It may be that the vaccine doesn’t respond in the same way, or doesn’t work in quite the same way. And if that were the case, of course, it would be a tragedy to allow that into the country.”
The new requirement for a negative test comes on top of the existing need for travellers to quarantine for 10 days after arriving in the UK.
The UK has already banned almost all travel from South Africa and last night extended the ban to Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola as well as Seychelles and Mauritius.
“There are the concerns about the South African one in particular about how effective the vaccine would be against it so we simply cannot take chances,” Mr Shapps said. “So today because of that variant it has become much more urgent.”
The new variant has emerged just as the UK ramps up its bid to give 14million vulnerable people their first vaccine dose by February 15.
Immunising the group – over-70s, care home residents, shielders and NHS and care staff – could prevent 88% of Covid-19 deaths.
Today’s study on the Pfizer vaccine, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at blood samples from 20 people who received the jab.
Laboratory studies found that the samples had neutralising levels of antibodies which worked against the new strains.
UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said this week it was possible the vaccine would still work but be less effective.
He told a No10 press conference: “It’s worth remembering that when a vaccine is given you don’t just make one antibody against one bit, you make lots of antibodies against lots of different bits.
“So it’s unlikely that all of that will be escaped by any mutations – but we don’t know yet.
“At the moment, you’d say the most likely thing is that this wouldn’t abolish vaccine effect. It may have some overall effect on efficacy but we don’t know.”
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford, said earlier this week: “I would worry a lot about the South African strain.
“The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein.
“My gut feeling is the vaccine will be still effective against the Kent strain. I don’t know about the South African strain – there’s a big question mark about that.”
The WHO’s technical chief on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said there was no indication the South African strain was more or less transmissible than the one identified in Kent.