Local lockdowns could be vital to tackle outbreaks of South African Covid variant, experts warn

OUTBREAKS of the South African variant could be effectively tackled with local lockdown style restrictions, experts say.

The highly transmissible variant, shown to weaken vaccine efficacy, currently makes up a small proportion of cases in the UK.

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But keeping it contained is imperative to avoid “derailing the vaccination programme”.

It comes amid the “largest testing operation” to date in London to stamp out cases of the South African variant. 

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “So far the restrictions have kept that number of infections of these new variants very small.

“As the restrictions lift, the key thing to watch is will that number go up week by week. And if so it's important, I think, to deploy the most effective measures possible to contain those outbreaks.”

Dr Barrett said the “tools we’ve deployed over the last 12 months need to be part of our arsenal against new variants”.

Asked if telling whole areas to “stay at home” would have a “medical impact”, Dr Barrett said: “It certainly could because one of the trickiest parts of this virus overall is of course some individuals infected don't have symptoms, and so they could transmit.

“Trying to use interventions that stop asymptomatic transmission may be an important part of keeping outbreaks of these new variants to be as absolutely small as possible.”

However, he said it would be up to public health agencies and the Government to decide if this was necessary.

Previously when there have been outbreaks of the South African variant in early 2021 requiring surge testing, residents have been told not to leave their home.

But after a large cluster of cases has cropped up in south London, the same advice has not been given.

Professor Kevin Fenton, London regional director of Public Health England, said Londonders had not been given extra restrictions because the prevalence of the virus was low, and therefore there was overall less risk of catching it.

Asked if this could change with future outbreaks, Prof Fenton said: “That's absolutely right because as we begin the process of unlocking and resenting society and mixing, even small numbers of variants when they occur can have the potential to spread relatively quickly.

“That's why we have such a proactive programme of screening and testing for new variants. And where we find, we search. We need to get a head of infection, and not keep following behind it.”

The Prime Minister has previously said he no longer wants to use local lockdowns like last summer as a way to control the epidemic, focusing instead on a national front.

But as cases of the virus come down to their lowest level in months, cases of the virus become more localised, instead of widespread.

The Government’s roadmap plan stated it “cannot rule out” restrictions on a local or regional level “to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine”.

What is the South African variant?

The South AFrican variant, named B.1.351, has been found to spread about 60-70 per cent faster than the original strain.

Originally detected in early October 2020, it was first announced by the South African government on December 18.

In the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the new and “highly concerning” strain had entered Britain during a press briefing on December 23.

It is not yet known if the South African strain has any different symptoms than the three standards ones highlighted by health officials.

Although scientists say there is a "hint" it is more deadly from studies in South Africa, where the strain is more dominant, there has been no clear evidence of this yet.

The variant has a mutation called E484K, which makes it able to dodge some immunity in the body created either from infection or the vaccines.

Studies for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines indicate a reduction in antibodies against the strain, up to six-fold lower.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine had 57 per cent efficacy in South Africa versus 72 per cent in the US, and Novavax’s vaccine had 49 per cent efficacy in South Africa versus 90 per cent in the UK.

A study suggested that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab was not effective at preventing mild illness caused by the more infectious South African mutation in young people.

But the jab will protect against deaths and severe disease amid the spread of the South African variant, according to researchers.

Researchers have said that even if antibodies are reduced, T-cells still remain potent enough to prevent severe disease.

Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi assured Brits that the Oxford jab would still prevent deaths – despite a study suggesting it was less effective against mild disease caused by the strain.

This has previously involved a chaotic step-by-step process of shutting down pubs, restaurants, gyms and non-essential travel.

Prof Fenton said everyone would need to get used to a “package of interventions” as “we enter the new normal of Covid”.

The most important of which is encouraging everyone to get involved with surge testing if it becomes necessary in their area, he said.

Prof Fenton urged people in the affected London areas to get a PCR test to stamp out the South African variant as quickly as possible.

He said: “There are two reasons why we are interested in keeping on top of this; the first is being absolutely there is nothing that is able to derail the current vaccinations programme, or the effectiveness of the vaccine, and we don't want this strain to become the dominant strain circulating in society.”

People in the boroughs of Lambeth, Wandsworth, and the Rotherhithe ward of Southwark have been urged to get a PCR test as soon as they can.

It comes after 44 confirmed cases of the South African variant  were found in Lambeth and Wandsworth with an additional 30 probable cases. 

Pictures have shown dozens of people queuing at testing sites to get swabbed, and marshals said wait times could be up to two hours. 

Signs posted around Clapham Common told those tested to avoid walking round the park and go home to wait for their results.

Testing will also be rolled out in the N3 postcode of Barnet from today due to a separate case unrelated to the south London cluster.

Prof Fenton said yesterday: "Around one in three people with Covid-19 don’t show any symptoms. By taking part you can protect yourselves and your loved ones and help us identify any possible new cases that would otherwise be missed, preventing further transmission and saving lives."

The South African variant has not taken off in the UK but is playing a role in the third wave in Europe, experts say.

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