Concerns over South Africa variant behind mandatory Covid tests for UK arrivals

Earlier, when announcing the new measure, Mr Shapps said: “We already have significant measures in place to prevent imported cases of Covid-19, but with new strains of the virus developing internationally we must take further precautions.”

Concerns over exactly how effective approved vaccines will be against the South African variant are partly behind the introduction of mandatory testing of all arrivals to the UK, transport secretary Grant Shapps has said.

“There are concerns that the South African one in particular – about how effective the vaccine would be against it – so we simply cannot take chances,” the minister told Sky News on Friday.

Under plans set out by Mr Shapps, from next week passengers arriving in England – including UK nationals – will have to take a Covid test and get a negative result up to 72 hours before leaving the country of departure.

Similar measures have been announced by the Scottish government, and officials were said to be working closely with the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland on adopting them there.

However, according to new research, the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech does offer protection against two worrying variants of the virus.

A study led by Pfizer and University of Texas researchers found neutralising levels of antibodies worked against the mutated variants – one of which was found in the UK, while the other originated in South Africa.

Despite the encouraging news from the US study, Mr Shapps said  “further precautions” had been necessary to prevent imported cases of Covid-19, with much still unknown about the new variants of the virus.

Both the UK and South African variants contain mutations including N501Y – an alteration in spike protein of the virus, which is a target for vaccines.

In the new US study on the two variants, blood samples were taken from 20 people who received the Pfizer vaccine. Lab studies found that the samples had neutralising levels of antibodies which worked against the variants.

The study is preliminary and has not yet been reviewed by experts – a key step to confirm medical research. But Pfizer’s chief scientific officer Dr Philip Dormitzer said it was a “very reassuring finding”.

Professor Sian Griffiths, an epidemiologist who also serves on an advisory board for Public Health England, said the US report into the Pfizer vaccine’s impact was “good news” – although she cautioned the paper had not yet been peer-reviewed.

Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the Pfizer study was “good news, mainly because it is not bad news”.

He added: “Had the opposite result been found, that the vaccine did not seem to have efficacy against the variation of the virus studied, that would have been bad and very concerning. So, yes this is good news, but it does not yet give us total confidence that the Pfizer vaccine or other vaccines will definitely give protection.

“We need to test this in clinical experience and the data on this should be available in the UK within the next few weeks.”

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