Cases of South Africa and Brazil Covid variants in UK are falling

The discovery of a new variant of the disease in Kent last year and further mutations found in Brazil and South Africa which have spread around the world dampened hopes of a rapid exit from lockdown restrictions.

Cases of coronavirus linked to the South Africa and Brazil mutations are falling in the UK, the health secretary has said.

Asked on Sky News whether he believed there was evidence to show that infections from those new variants were coming down, Matt Hancock replied: “Yes I do.”

He said: “There is evidence that the measures that we are taking, both the enhanced contact tracing and also stricter measures at the border, are working.”

Vaccines are still seen as the best route out of the pandemic and experts believe most coronavirus jabs should still prevent severe disease, even in those who are infected with the new variants.

However two laboratory studies published last week said vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna appeared to be less effective against the South African variant when compared to other versions of the virus.

Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, Mr Hancock said: “If one of these new variants doesn’t respond to the vaccine as well as the others – as well as the standard variant in the UK, which is the Kent variant – then, if that’s the case, then that’s obviously a very serious risk for the vaccination programme.

“We’re doing a lot of work to find out the impact of the vaccine on these new variants – especially the ones discovered in Brazil and South Africa – because, clearly, the answer to that question is critical to understanding how much of a risk the new variants pose.

“But the good news is the actions we’re taking right now do appear to be working.”

His comments came after scientists from Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch reported results from their study on Thursday after they created an engineered virus that contained the same mutations as the South African coronavirus variant, known as B.1.351.

The lab-made virus was then tested against blood taken from 15 people who had been given the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

Results showed there were two thirds fewer neutralising antibodies against the virus with the key South African mutations, when compared with the most common version of the virus circulating in the US.

For the Moderna study, the team also looked at blood samples of people that had been given their vaccine.

Results showed a six-fold decrease in antibody response against the variant.

Previous research has shown both vaccines were likely to be effective against B.1.1.7, which first emerged in Kent.

Mr Hancock also insisted the government must take a “cautious” approach to easing lockdown restrictions despite an accelerated target to offer coronavirus vaccines to all adults by the end of July.

The health secretary said there were still almost 20,000 people in hospital with Covid-19 and that – despite the jabs rollout going “very well”.

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