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Brendan Wren is a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Brendan Wren is a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Brendan Wren is a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

When an expert from the UK Health Security Agency warns that a new variant of the Covid virus is ‘the worst we have seen so far’ and another scientist calls it ‘horrific’, you can forgive people for starting to panic all over again.

And, at first glance, there is certainly good reason to pay attention to B.1.1.529 – the new variant identified in southern Africa.

After all, it has 50 mutations compared to the strain that first emerged in Wuhan two years ago, making it very different from the original virus.

And on the part of the pathogen that infects human cells, it has ten mutations, compared to just two for the Delta variant that swept the world this year.

So, by far the most important questions are: is this variant more transmissible, more virulent and are our vaccines less effective against it?

And on these, we are still largely in the dark. That’s why it’s prudent for the time being to try to keep the variant out of this country for as long as possible by stopping flights here from affected nations – though we need to be realistic about any ability to do this in the long term.

But here’s the key point – viruses mutate all the time. And when they do, they don’t always result in more virulent or more worrying strains. Quite the opposite. Over time, pathogens tend to become less deadly because a virus that kills its host quickly spreads less than one that doesn’t.

What about vaccines? There have been worried claims that the variant will somehow be ‘resistant’ to the growing arsenal of jabs – let alone all the other drugs and treatments – that the world’s medical community has developed to fight Covid.

Will these claims prove correct? Again, who knows? But even if our vaccines are less effective against B.1.1.529, that certainly does not mean that we are going back to the world of early 2020.

So far our vaccines have worked against all variants of the virus that have evolved. They were developed based on DNA sequenced from the Wuhan strain and they have served us well.

What’s more, Britain is the world leader on genome sequencing. Currently, UK laboratories sequence more than 50,000 strains of Covid a week, enabling us to have an early warning system for new variants and stay one step ahead of the virus.

This is how we identified the Alpha (or Kent) variant – it probably arose abroad but our modelling here allowed us to spot it before anyone else.

Above all, the world has a raft of companies developing new vaccine technologies. Scientists can easily modify vaccines to meet new variants – within days if necessary.

If we do in fact need a ‘new’ vaccine to fight this latest variant, it will be a case of tweaking an existing one.

So, by far the most important questions are: is this variant more transmissible, more virulent and are our vaccines less effective against it?

So, by far the most important questions are: is this variant more transmissible, more virulent and are our vaccines less effective against it?

So, by far the most important questions are: is this variant more transmissible, more virulent and are our vaccines less effective against it?

The vaccine team at Oxford University – and other scientists around the world – are already looking at the genome sequences of all the virus’s variants, including B.1.1.529.

In the arms race against the virus, humanity is winning – and we are well-prepared. This is not the last time another variant will emerge. In the meantime, it is vital to remember to stay calm and not overreact.

Brendan Wren is a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Source: Daily Mail

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