Vaccine won’t work against South Africa coronavirus variant, worry UK scientists

New variants in the Covid-19 coronavirus from the UK and South Africa have caused renewed global concern in recent weeks. But UK scientists now fear that it is the South African strain that causes the greatest risk, as it may be impervious to the various vaccines that have been developed, including those of Pfizer and Moderna.

The concerns were relayed to UK broadcaster ITV by unnamed advisers to the UK government.

Matt Hancock, the UK minister for health, has said that he was ‘incredibly worried’ about the new South African variant, calling it a “very significant problem”.

Scientists say the new variants in both South Africa and the UK have mutations on a key protein that helps the virus enter other cells.

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John Bell, regius professor of medicine at University of Oxford, told Times Radio that there was a “big question mark” over whether vaccines would work on the South African variant, and that “It might take a month or six weeks to get a new vaccine”.

That is of little succour to those in South Africa who are still waiting for the first vaccine.

South Africa’s trade union federation COSATU has criticised the government for being ‘caught napping’ on a vaccine roll out programme.

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“A solid and convincing vaccine acquisition and distribution strategy should have been developed earlier and by now, the government should be starting the rollout process and not making vague commitments,” said COSATU.

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“The to-do list that includes phone calls, bilaterals, research, authorisation that the minister is talking about should have been done four months ago, in September last year, when there were signs already that a vaccine was probable in the first quarter of 2021.”

Complicating matters further for South Africa: one of the world’s largest manufacturers of the covid-19 vaccine, Moderna, has said it will not be distributing its vaccine in South Africa.

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On Sunday evening, South Africa’s health minister Zweli Mkhize held a briefing on how the country would be rolling out the vaccine. “We are targeting a minimum of 67% of the population to achieve herd immunity and the approach will be a phased rollout of the vaccine beginning with the most vulnerable in our population”, he said.

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