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Expert 'pretty confident' COVID vaccine will still work on new strain

George Martin
·3-min read
Nurse Justine Braid prepares the first of two injections with a dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine at a NHS vaccine centre that has been set up in the grounds of the horse racing course at Epsom in Surrey.
An NHS nurse prepares to administer the vaccine in Epsom. (PA)

Scotland’s leading doctor has said he is "pretty confident" the COVID vaccine will work on the new variant of the virus.

Jason Leitch, the country’s national clinical director, said despite the new strain being up to 70% more transmissable it is unlikely to be immune to the recently-approved Pfizer vaccine.

So far around 350,000 people have been given the jab as of Saturday morning, according to the government, with that number expected to rise to 500,000 by Monday.

"We are pretty confident from first principles, looking at it down a microscope for lack of a better description, that the vaccine will work, but we need to prove that,” Leitch said.

Nicole Costa, pharmacy manager at Amita Health Presence Medical Center in Joliet, Ill., prepares the COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to medical personnel on December 16, 2020. (Photo by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA)
So far around 350,000 people have been given the vaccine in the UK. (PA)

He said the new variant of the virus has to be grown at the Porton Down laboratory in Wiltshire and then be attacked by antibodies to see if it can be killed.

Leitch said virologists are pretty confident that what has been seen so far "doesn't worry them", but added they believed the R number is higher in the new strain.

"We don't know this for sure, but we think the R number for this version is 0.4 more than the R number for the other one if you just let it run wild,” he added.

Read more: Anger after Boris Johnson makes ‘heartbreaking’ U-turn over Christmas restrictions

"So imagine you have an R number right now of 0.9 - you think you are doing well, numbers are falling, everybody is transmitting to fewer than one other person, you are on the right path, then you get this dominant strain and your R number overnight goes to 1.3, and you get exponential growth, and you are in big trouble."

It comes as health secretary Matt Hancock has said the country faces an "enormous challenge" controlling the new strain.

Watch: Hancock admits new strain of virus is out of control

Hancock suggested additional restrictions for England announced by the prime minister on Saturday may have to remain for "the next couple of months" while a vaccine is rolled out.

"What is really important is that people not only follow them (the new rules) but everybody in a Tier 4 area acts as if you have the virus to stop spreading it to other people," he told Sky News's Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

"We know with this new variant you can catch it more easily from a small amount of the virus being present.

"All of the different measures we have in place, we need more of them to control the spread of the new variant than we did to control the spread of the old variant. That is the fundamental problem.

"We know that in November, in the areas where this new variant started, in Kent, the cases carried on rising, whereas in the rest of the country the November lockdown worked very effectively.

"It is an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months."