We look back at last week’s coronavirus situation in the UK, the variants of concern, news about the vaccines, some experts calling the pandemic over, and more...

First published in May 2021.

The pandemic so far...

460 days since the first case of SARS-CoV-2 was reported in the UK, here we are:

  • 4,423,796 cases
  • 127,543 deaths

Have we learned nothing about the risks of foreign travel during a global pandemic?

Clubbing trial in Liverpool. | CGTN

Variants, a growing part of the problem

How concerned should we be about variants? How confident are we that the UK Government rigorously monitors individual variants?

Public Health England is providing some regular updates on SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and variants under investigation in England. These reports appear to be very detailed and helpful, but is the government ensuring that sufficient resources are being provided for the most comprehensive collection of such vital data? And where are we with testing, tracking and tracing? All of the above needs to be happening on a daily basis, especially given the importance of ensuring that variants of concern are prevented from spreading across the UK exponentially.

Covid-19 variants confirmed in the UK.

Worldwide, much vitally important research into the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern is continuing. This will need to continue with significant investment by governments, with vital data shared and co-ordinated globally through organisations such as the World Health Organisation.

A number of international studies have been published in the past weeks. One such example being this paper recently produced by Tjede Funk (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Stockholm, Sweden) and colleagues.

“In December 2020, the United Kingdom (UK) reported an emerging SARS-CoV-2 VOC classified as Pangolin lineage B.1.1.7. In the UK, and shortly thereafter in Denmark, B.1.1.7 infections increased rapidly. In parallel to the identification of B.1.1.7, increased whole-genome sequencing (WGS) efforts globally led to the identification of further SARS-CoV-2 VOC, including B.1.351 (described in South Africa) or P.1 (originating in Brazil). While viral evolution is expected and has occurred since the discovery of SARS-CoV-2, these VOC were associated with higher transmissibility and severity as well as altered antigenicity with potential implications for acquired immunity or effectiveness of current vaccines compared with other circulating lineages lacking particular defining mutations such as E484K, N501Y or del69-70.”

The spread of the virus continues to challenge governments. No government is immune to the importation of a new variant.

We have watched, in horror, afar, at how first Brazil, then India, have been affected by the spread of Covid-19 across these countries. In the UK concerns have been raised by those who have feared the importation of new variants into the country – which should concern us all – and the associated risks to our own ‘fragile’ context. The numbers of variants (of concern, or under investigation) being reported have been increasing – albeit slowly. Of particular concern was the decision by the UK Government to delay adding India to the ‘red list’. Questions were raised publicly, and will continue to be raised, regarding whether this was quick enough to prevent importation of variants, such as the ones reported in Leicester on 28 April 2021.

What’s important? “Vaccinations, testing, and sequencing,” Nadhim Zahawi said on Peston last week. It is more and more obvious that variants are of concern and that testing and the percentage of vaccinations are important. But sequencing in the UK represents only 7.4% of all positive cases. We are only seeing the very top of the iceberg.

Sequencing in the UK: Only 7.4% of all poisitives. | The Washington Post

We need a global response to the pandemic to ensure an effective solution, one that works for every nation. Is such an approach happening? Are we seeing international collaboration and partnership on the scale necessary to seize control from the virus?

As the government is going to open everything right up in the coming weeks, the risks are massive if any of the variants are unaffected by the presence of vaccines in our bodies.

PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10

Vaccines, part of the solution

People vaccinated: (up to and including 3 May 2021)

  • 💉34,667,904 first doses
    📈 65.82% of UK adults (18+)
    📈 51.90% of UK population
  • 💉15,630,007 fully vaccinated
    📈 29.67% of UK adults (18+)
    📈 23.40% of UK population

14-Day UK COVID-19 Data – Graph showing key data as trendlines as of 4 May 2021.

“A single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine can cut transmission of the virus by up to half, according to a Public Health England study,” Sky News reported last week.

At the same time, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told us that the UK “is likely to see a third wave”, although he also said that it could be reduced to more of “an upsurge thanks to the vaccines.”

He added that “most of the steady decline” in cases since the peak in mid-January has been “due to lockdown and that “we are now seeing evidence of the impact of the vaccine with lower death rates in older age groups.”

As the week drew to a close, we had an important message from the ‘vaccine’s minister’, Nadhim Zahawi, when he warned, Britons should be “careful” before starting to hug each other and meet indoors again.”

Indeed, a new study by Professor Danny Altmann and his team at Imperial College London explains that a single dose of Pfizer vaccine may not generate sufficient immune response against coronavirus variants.”

“For a country like the UK, which has the majority of its vaccinated people on one dose and also has an eye on the horizon for variants of concern, that’s a potential vulnerability,” Professor Altmann added.

In New Delhi India, a poster plays a role in dispelling myths about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The end of the pandemic?

For some experts to say “The COVID-19 pandemic is over in Britain” is surely verging on irresponsible. It is that kind of attitude that has led to people loosening their guard in other countries across the world – leading to a surge in infections.

Saying “The COVID-19 pandemic is over in Britain” also leads to more and more of this:

With India already struggling to manage a strong double mutant variant of the COVID-19 virus, there are reports suggesting that the southern states of the country could have been affected by a more lethal variant of the virus named N440K. However, “current data shows that it is slowly being replaced by new variants of concerns (VoCs) such as B.1.617 (dubbed a double-mutant variant) and B.1.1.7 (variant identified in the UK),” according to India Today.

South India’s N440K Covid variant 15 times more lethal. | India Today

The COVID-19 pandemic is no more over in Britain than it is over in India, or anywhere else in the world. Until we face up to our global responsibility for the safety of all people, in all nations, and provide healthcare resources and vaccines for all, we will never have control. 

Dr Joe Pajak, Professional experience applied scientific research and development, then director of a national children’s charity, trustee of a disability charity, and a governor of an NHS foundation trust hospital.
J.N. PAQUET, Author & Journalist, Editor of PMP Magazine.

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 5 May 2021. | The authors write in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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