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Door-to-door testing for South African variant to start in Surrey

WHERE IS DOOR-TO-DOOR TESTING BEING OFFERED?

London

W7: Hanwell

N17: Tottenham

CR4: Mitcham

West Midlands

WS2: Walsall

East of England

EN10: Broxbourne

South East 

ME15: Maidstone

GU21: Woking

North West

PR9: Southport 

Door-to-door coronavirus testing is being launched across eight parts of England amid fears the South African variant causing panic around the world is now spreading in the community.  

In a desperate attempt to keep track of the mutated virus that experts fear could hamper the current crop of vaccines, health officials will carry out swabs on doorsteps in Woking in Surrey, Walsall in the West Midlands, as well as parts of London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Lancashire

More than 80,000 adults over 18 will be targeted as part of the voluntary surveillance scheme and residents will be asked to take a test regardless of whether or not they have symptoms. The ‘surge testing’ will be done by local health chiefs, along with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care.

PHE has already spotted 105 cases of the ‘B.1.351’ South African variant since December 22, including 11 people — scattered across the eight areas receiving extra testing — who were struck down with the virus but had no history of international travel. 

Experts fear there could be hundreds more cases already in the UK because PHE only analyses one in 10 random positive samples and the strain cannot be spotted in standard PCR tests.  

Health officials are anxious not to let another Covid variant run rampant, after Britain struggled to get a grip on the Kent strain which sparked a devastating second wave that plunged England into its third lockdown at the start of January. 

Like the Kent variant, the South African version carries the N501Y mutation which makes it far more transmissible than the original Covid strain. And it has additional mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people. Ministers have banned travel from South Africa and surrounding countries as a result. 

But there is currently no evidence that the variant causes more severe illness and early studies suggest the current crop of jabs are good enough to protect against it.

PHE sources claimed today they were ‘not expecting a surge in cases’ because the strain is no more transmissible than the dominant Kent one currently plaguing the country, so it has no ‘evolutionary edge’ over it. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said this morning he was ‘confident’ that all the vaccines the UK has ordered will ‘provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants’. 

But Labour said it was ‘deeply worrying’ that the South African strain appeared to be spreading in the community, claiming it ‘shows the UK Government’s quarantine system is not working’.

In other dramatic coronavirus developments today:

  • Boris Johnson said lockdown was working and vaccines are effective against Covid variants, but warned it is too early to take ‘foot off the neck of the beast’;
  • Ministers are believed to be considering giving spare vaccines to Ireland in the coming months after the EU staged a humiliating climbdown on its threat to ban exports;
  • Britain could be back to something close to pre-coronavirus life as soon as the summer thanks to the UK’s vaccine juggernaut, according to a top scientist;
  • It has been claimed Matt Hancock vetoed a deal to manufacture a British vaccine in the United States because it did not guarantee the UK would get the first supply of jabs;
  • Rishi Sunak has been warned against a money-raising Budget next month with the tax burden at a 70-year high and the manufacturing recovery stalling.

In a desperate attempt to keep track of the South African variant that experts fear could effect the current crop of vaccines, health officials will carry out swabs in Woking in Surrey, Walsall in the West Midlands, as well as parts of London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Lancashire

Door-to-door coronavirus testing is being launched across eight parts of England amid fears the South African variant causing panic around the world is now spreading in the community. Pictured: A resident in Oldham gets a doorstep coronavirus test last October when cases were spiralling in Manchester

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today he was 'confident' that all the vaccines the UK has ordered will 'provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants'

A resident in Oldham gets a doorstep coronavirus test last October when cases were spiralling in Manchester Prime Minister (left). Boris Johnson said today he was ‘confident’ that all the vaccines the UK has ordered will ‘provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants’

Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said: ‘This is deeply worrying. It shows the UK Government’s quarantine system is not working with the country being exposed to dangerous strains of the virus and new cases now appearing.

‘While door-to-door testing is welcome in areas where cases of the South African variant with no links to travel have been identified, how can the Home Secretary justify keeping our borders open to Covid, allowing around 21,000 people to arrive every day?

‘Conservative MPs must vote with Labour today to secure our borders against Covid and help to prevent progress on the vaccine being undermined. The Government must also ensure that adequate isolation support is put in place for those required to self-isolate.’

So far Pfizer and Moderna’s jabs, of which the UK has ordered 57million doses, appear only slightly less effective against the South African variant, according to lab studies by the jab makers published last week.

Even with the slight reduction in efficacy, the research strongly suggests the vaccines will still be able to kill off the new strain before it can cause serious illness.

Researchers took blood samples from vaccinated patients and exposed them to an engineered virus with the worrying mutations found on the South African variant.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT? 

Real name: B.1.351

When was it discovered? Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, in mid-December.

What mutations does it have? The South African variant carries 21 mutations, some of which change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The two worrying alterations are known as E484K and N501Y.

Why is it causing panic? N501Y appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread. This is the same mutation found on the Kent variant, which is at least 50 per cent more infectious than regular Covid. 

The variant has mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people

The variant has mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear will make it difficult for the immune system to recognise, even in vaccinated people

Scientists believe E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies. Researchers suspect this is the case because strains with this mutation have been shown to reinfect people who caught and beat older versions of Covid.  

How many people have caught it in the UK? At least 105 Brits have been infected with this variant, though the number is likely to be far higher because PHE is only testing random positive samples. 

Will it affect vaccines? So far Pfizer and Moderna’s jabs appear only slightly less effective against the South African variant. Researchers took blood samples from vaccinated patients and exposed them to an engineered virus with the worrying mutations found on the South African variant.

They found there was a noticeable reduction in the production of antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins made in the blood after vaccination or natural infection, but still enough to kill off the mutant strain.

There are still concerns about how effective a single dose of vaccine will be against the strain. So far Pfizer and Moderna’s studies have only looked at how people given two doses react to the South African variant, 

Studies into Oxford University/AstraZeneca‘s jab and the South African strain are still ongoing.

Johnson & Johnson confirmed that its single shot jab blocked 57 per cent of coronavirus infections in South Africa, which meets the World Health Organization’s 50 per cent efficacy threshold. 

They found there was about a noticeable reduction in the production of antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins made in the blood after vaccination or natural infection.

But, in a boost to the world’s immunsation efforts, the team said the number of antibodies produced was still high enough to kill the mutant strain. 

There are still concerns about how effective a single dose of vaccine will be against the strain. So far Pfizer and Moderna’s studies have only looked at how people given two doses react to the South African variant, and Britain has decided to delay giving people two doses to get more people jabbed quickly.

Johnson & Johnson confirmed last week that its world-first single shot jab, which Britain has pre-ordered 30million doses of, blocked 57 per cent of coronavirus infections in South Africa, which meets the World Health Organization’s 50 per cent efficacy threshold and hints that one shot may be enough to fend off the new strain. That jab is expected to be rolled out in the coming months once it seals approval.

Studies into Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s jab, which Britain has ordered 100million doses of and is already dishing out to the most vulnerable, and the South African strain are still ongoing. 

Reacting to today’s announcement, Professor Jonathan Ball, a molecular virologist at the University of Nottingham, said: ‘We know that some coronavirus variants might be less easily killed by antibodies raised against some of the existing vaccines, but the levels of immunity are hopefully still sufficient to prevent serious disease. 

‘But we can’t be certain that vaccine immunity might not be adversely impacted, especially after a single dose, which is why it is important to try to prevent these variants from spreading widely. 

‘That will mean effective social distancing and identifying where the variants are currently circulating, so we can stop them in their tracks through effective testing, track and trace and isolating infected individuals.’

The South African variant carries 21 mutations, some of which change the shape of the spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to human cells, on its outside. The two worrying mutations it carries are known as E484K and N501Y.

N501Y appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread. This is the same mutation found on the Kent variant, which is at least 50 per cent more infectious than regular Covid and possibly more deadly.

Scientists believe E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies. Researchers suspect this is the case because strains with this mutation have been shown to reinfect people who caught and beat older versions of Covid.  

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, added: ‘The presence of the ‘South African’ variant of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the UK has been recorded previously but has ultimately been linked to travel there. 

‘This variant not only appears to spread rapidly, but there is emerging evidence to suggest that it is less susceptible to immunity induced by the current crop of vaccines. The discovery of a handful of cases with no links to travel to Africa, indicates that it might be more widespread in the community than previously thought.

‘Detecting this is a success story for the UK’s coronavirus genome sequencing programme. This spread, even if small in scale, needs to be brought under control quickly, so Public Health England’s house-to-house checks, and intensive testing are the right thing to do. Anyone testing positive for the coronavirus must isolate to stop the spread.’

Professor Rowland Kao, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science, University of Edinburgh, said: ‘The identification of cases of the SA variant in people with no obvious travel links (either travel themselves, or links to other known cases) suggest that, at the very least, they were infected while in the UK – i.e. there is evidence of local transmission. 

‘As only 5 per cent of cases are tested to determine if they are the variant, there is a high probability that further local cases are in circulation – making it more difficult at the spread of the variant can be contained. 

‘Surge testing, i.e where all residents will be offered a PCR test via post will aim therefore to identify variant clusters and extent of spread, but is highly dependent on individuals taking up those tests, as it remains a voluntary activity. 

‘As there is some evidence that current vaccines may be at least somewhat less effective against this variant, slowing its spread via surge testing and maintaining travel restrictions to prevent it jumping to other areas of the UK (if it has not done so already) will be important to keep COVID-19 infections continuing downwards at its current trajectory.’

It comes after Boris Johnson today insisted lockdown is working and vaccines are effective against coronavirus variants – but warned it is too early to take our ‘foot off the throat of the beast’.

The PM struck a positive tone as he visited a vaccination site in Yorkshire, saying there was evidence of a ‘flattening and maybe even a falling off of infection rates and hospitalisations’.

After a leaked Cabinet Office report hailed the ‘stabilising’ situation, he also stressed that the government believes all the jabs being used in the UK are effective against all variants. And he said he was ‘optimistic’ that Britons will be able to go on summer holidays this year.

But Mr Johnson dodged committing to any timetable, amid fears that the South African version of the disease is transmitting in the community.

Eleven people across England have tested positive for that variant, despite having no links to travel or previous cases of the strain – with ‘surge testing’ being carried out in the area to check the scale of the problem. In total the Department of Health says 105 cases have now been found in the UK.

The PM told reporters on his visit to the vaccination hub in Batley: ‘We are starting to see some signs of a flattening and maybe even a falling off of infection rates and hospitalisations.

‘But don’t forget that they are still at a very high level by comparison with most points in the last 12 months, a really very high level.

‘So the risk is if you take your foot off the throat of the beast, as it were, and you allow things to get out of control again then you could, alas, see the disease spreading again fast before we have got enough vaccines into people’s arms. That’s the risk.’

Asked about the issue with variants spreading, Mr Johnson said: ‘We are confident that all the vaccines that we are using provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants.’

He said the vaccines could be adapted to deal with new variants if necessary.

‘The fact is we are going to be living with Covid for a while to come in one way or another, I don’t think it will be as bad as the last 12 months – or anything like – of course, but it’s very, very important that our vaccines continue to develop and to adapt, and they will,’ he said.

What variants are causing panic around the world? 

Kent variant

Real name: B.1.1.7

When was it discovered? The variant was first found in the South East of England and can be traced back to September 2020.

What mutations does it have? It has 23 mutations, some of which change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The main mutation is known as N501Y. This appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread.

Why is it causing worry? UK studies have shown it is between 50 and 70 per cent more infectious than the regular strain, which has made it harder to control. Preliminary studies also show it is about 30 per cent more deadly than previous versions.

How many people have caught it in the UK? It is the dominant strain in Britain and accounts for the majority of new cases. 

Brazil variant 

Real name: P.1

When was it discovered? In Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.

What mutations does it have? P.1 has 17 mutations, three of which are particularly concerning to scientists.

Like the Kent variant, it also has the N501Y mutation which suggests it’s more infectious and possibly more lethal.  

It also has a spike alteration named E484K, which scientists believe may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies.

Researchers suspect this is the case because strains with this mutation have been shown to reinfect people who caught and beat older versions of Covid. 

Another key mutation in the variant, named K417T, has the potential to ‘possibly escape some antibodies’, according to British experts.

This mutation is less well-studied and the ramifications of this are still being researched.  

Why is it causing worry? There have been a number of proven cases of people catching this variant after beating older versions of the virus. It strongly suggests the variant can evade natural immunity and possibly even vaccines.

How many people have caught it in the UK? It’s not. Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of the variant, but this doesn’t rule it out completely. 

South African variant 

Real name: B.1.351

When was it discovered? Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, in mid-December.

What mutations does it have? The South African variant carries 21 mutations, including E484K and N501Y.

Why is it causing worry? Those two mutations suggest it is more infectious than the older version of Covid and raise the possibility of antibody resistance. However, Sir Patrick Vallance has said there is no reason the South African or Brazilian strains would become dominant in the UK, because they don’t have any evolutionary edge over the Kent strain currently plaguing the country, which is just as transmissible.

How many people have caught it in the UK? At least 105 Brits have been infected with this variant, though the number is likely to be far higher because PHE is only testing random positive samples. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk