They spoke out after concern was raised over a new variant found in Bristol last week that is similar to the South African virus and listed as a “variant of concern”. It was reported that this variant – characterised by key mutations from Kent and South Africa – could spread fast and also get past immunity from vaccines. It is the latest in a series of variants that have caused alarm for the Government and its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The Kent variant discovered in September led to a third lockdown being brought in at the end of 2020 and shattered Christmas plans for families across the UK.
But other leading experts dismissed the latest “variant of concern” and insist we should not panic as intensive surge testing for the South African variant is being conducted in several parts of the country.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Professor Robert Dingwall, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Virus Threats Group – Nervtag – said: “We should not be panicking about these variants.
“The sort of variants we will see are such a small drift from the original virus that they do not change it in a radical way.
“The changes we have seen and we will see are pretty minor modifications of the virus which can be easily matched by the vaccine or tweaks to it.”
He also questioned the need for quarantine hotels which were announced by Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock as a measure to prevent variants arriving from 33 “red list” countries.
He said: “I fail to see how hotels will keep variants out. Shutting borders does not stop variants emerging. Variants spontaneously appear in the UK as anywhere else and you cannot totally shut borders because we rely on imports of food and medicine.
“I’m confident in our ability to fine tune vaccines if they become less effective against some new variant but any of the vaccines will still reduce severe disease, protect the NHS and allow us to get on with our lives.”
Professor Anthony Brookes, geneticist from the University of Leicester said: “I question whether we are over interpreting the significance of new strains.
“A new strain only needs a slight advantage over others to take off and become dominant. This is because all the different strains compete with each other.”
“New strains occur naturally all the time with any virus. It is futile to try and stop them from emerging and becoming dominant.”
Professor Hugh Pennington – a public health expert from the University of Aberdeen said: “We have enough virus buzzing around for variants to occur in this country. It is impossible to predict which will take off but if one was to become resistant to the coronavirus vaccine it would be unheard of. It has never happened with any other vaccine.
“However, if such a thing were to happen and it mutated enough we would have good advance warning as we would pick it up quickly with the level of surveillance we have combined with the sequencing we are doing, and this information could be passed to vaccine manufacturers. This is not something that will wipe out the benefits of the vaccine programme.”
Scientists first raised alarm over new variants in December after the discovery of a Kent variant in September which was said to be 70 per cent more transmissible by scientific modellers.
This modelling was instrumental in the justification of a third lockdown as well as cancellation of Christmas plans for families.
Since then there have been concerns over strains from Brazil, South Africa and now Bristol.
These discoveries on samples sent to Public Health England triggered the rollout of surge testing across large parts of the country with every result being sequenced for signs of mutation.
And last week Matt Hancock announced new rules intended to reduce the introduction and transmission of variants. Travellers having to stay in quarantine hotels in England will be charged £1,750 for their stay. The measures, which come into force tomorrow, apply to UK and Irish residents returning from 33 red list countries.
Surge testing is being carried out in parts of Hampshire, Walsall and Middlesbrough after cases of the South African variant were found. Anyone over the age of 16 is being urged to get tested whether they have symptoms or not as officials introduce door-to-door testing and new centres.
The operation in Walsall has also been extended in response to a confirmed second case of the variant which is not believed to be linked to international travel.
The discovery of a case in the village of Bramley, near Basingstoke, was announced yesterday with rapid testing to begin this week.
Meanwhile a vaccination centre in Surrey had to be evacuated after a fire broke out. Surrey Fire and Rescue Service said people left Emberbrook Community Centre in Thames Ditton on Saturday before firefighters arrived at 3.33pm.