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COVID-19: Ignore ‘scary headlines’ about South Africa variant and get coronavirus vaccine, says Professor Jonathan Van-Tam

Written by on 8 February 2021

Britons “should not be concerned” that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could be less effective against the South African coronavirus variant, a government adviser has said.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam explained case numbers of the variant in the UK are “very small” and it is not likely to become more dominant than the strain first found in Kent.

He was seeking to calm people’s fears after South Africa halted the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Principal Pharmacist Davinder Manku (right) receives an injection of the Oxford/Astrazeneca coronavirus vaccine at The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. The open air museum, which has previously been used as a set for the BBC drama Peaky Blinders, is now being used as a covid vaccination centre. Picture date: Monday January 25, 2021. Image: People were urged to get whatever vaccine they are offered

England’s deputy chief medical officer said people in the UK should take whatever vaccine they are offered – then get a booster jab in the autumn to combat variants, if needed.

“The stories and the headlines around variant viruses and vaccines are a bit scary – I wish they weren’t,” he told a Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Monday.

“I don’t think that this is something we should be concerned about right at this point in time.”

Several vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer have released preliminary data about their jabs’ effect on the South African variant, Prof Van-Tam explained.

On average 40% of those tested had coronavirus antibodies Image: South Africa has stopped the rollout of the Oxford/ AstraZeneca jab

He said they “do give me confidence that there is still likely to be a substantial effect” on “reducing serious illness – even if infections are not as well prevented”.

Prof Van-Tam admitted the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine trial in South Africa showed young adults experienced a “mild disease and a reduced level of protection against infection”.

But he continued: “That really doesn’t change my view that it is still rather likely to have an effect on severe disease.”

Directly addressing people wondering whether to wait for a COVID-19 vaccine more effective against the South African variant, Prof Van-Tam urged them: “Do not delay.

“Have the vaccine that will protect you against the current threat and don’t worry, you can be re-vaccinated.

“For people who’ve had a full course of two vaccines, a re-vaccination is probably only going to require one dose. That requires some science work to confirm it, but that is my hunch.”

AstraZeneca COVID vaccine Image: The AstraZeneca jab is one of two COVID vaccines being rolled out across the UK

Prof Van-Tam also said there is “plenty of evidence that the vaccines we are deploying are effective” against the variant most widespread in the UK.

Sir Mark Walport, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, later told Sky News it is not just the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that is “showing less effectiveness” against the South African variant.

“We know from clinical studies of the other vaccines that they seem to be a bit less effective as well,” he said.

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“What we know about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is that it doesn’t appear to stop mild or moderate disease in a young population.

“What we don’t know at this stage is whether it will actually prevent the severe disease leading to hospitalisation and potentially death in older populations.”

It comes as the NHS in England asked over-70s who have not had a coronavirus vaccine yet to book an appointment, in a bid to make sure no-one slips through the cracks in the race for inoculation.

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