CAPE TOWN - British scientists and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock have raised concerns that existing Covid-19 vaccines may not be effective against the South African strain of the coronavirus, news reports said on Monday.
Reuters quoted ITV as saying Hancock was "incredibly worried" that the South African strain of the virus was resistant to vaccines being rolled out in the UK.
It also cited Oxford professor of medicine John Bell, a member of the government's vaccine task team, as saying that there was a “big question mark” as to whether the vaccines would work against the South African strain of Covid-19.
If this is correct, scientists would have to try to adapt the vaccines.
The South African variant reportedly has multiple mutations of the “spike” protein in the virus that enables it to attach to cells in the human body.
It is also believed to carry a higher viral load and therefore to be more contagious.
The Guardian reported that Hancock made the remarks shortly after an 82-year-old man became the first British person to receive the new Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
It comes as South Africa faces a debate about whether the government has dragged its feet on procuring a vaccine supply to combat rapidly rising infections that has swathes of the country, including Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, declared coronavirus hot spots.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he could not rule out an imminent return to tougher lockdown restrictions, given indications that the virus was rapidly spreading in areas where tier 3 restrictions were currently in place.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for a full nationwide lockdown to be imposed within 24 hours. Almost 80% of Britain is already under tier 4 restrictions after the government tightened measures last week.
Hancock for his part stressed that the National Health Service was "under significant pressure", adding that whereas tier 3 restrictions had proven effective against the initial variant of the virus, this was not the case with the new variant.