UK COVID-19 Update: South African Variant Found in England With No Travel Links

Peter Russell

February 01, 2021

Editor's note, 1 February 2021: This article was updated to include today's daily data and information from a Downing Street briefing.

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Urgent Tests for South African Variant

Testing for the South Africa variant of SARS-CoV-2 will begin in areas of England, after cases were found with no known links to travel.

People in areas of Surrey, London, Kent, Hertfordshire, and Walsall will be asked to take tests, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

It was reported that random checks identified 11 cases that cannot be linked to travel from the UK or previous cases.

News of the enhanced testing emerged when households in parts of Woking were told to expect a COVID-19 PCR test posted through their letterbox to check for the variant, known as VOC202012/02.

Test kits would start to be sent out today, the Surrey Local Resilience Forum said.

The scheme could be extended to Egham within the next few days, it said.

Later it emerged that specific postcode areas would be targeted for enhanced testing. These were:

  • East of England (EN10)

  • London (W7, N17, CR4)

  • North West (PR9)

  • South East (ME15, GU21)

  • West Midlands (WS2)

Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director to Public Health England, and Chief Medical Adviser for NHS Test and Trace, said: "As part of our proactive sequencing work, we know that the new variant of COVID-19, first detected in South Africa, has been identified in a number of areas across England. A small proportion of these cases have no link to international travel suggesting that there are some cases in the community.

"In response to this, we are ramping up testing in targeted areas, so we can gather more information and effectively monitor any further community transmission."

England's Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street briefing: "There's currently no evidence to suggest this variant is any more severe. But we need to come down on it hard, and we will."

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told the Science Media Centre: "We know that some coronavirus variants might be less easily killed by antibodies raised [by] 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."

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said even small clusters of the variant must be "brought under control quickly".

He commented: "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.

Care Home Vaccinations

COVID-19 vaccines have been offered to people living in more than 10,000 care homes in England with older residents, the Government announced.

Helen Whately, the care minister, told Sky News that a "small number" of care homes had not yet been visited to have the vaccine offered because of outbreaks of COVID-19.

She said NHS teams would complete vaccination for people in remaining homes "as soon as they possibly can".

The Department of Health and Social Care urged any care home in England with older residents who have not been visited to get in touch.

Daily Data

In today's daily data another 18,607 UK positive tests were reported and 406 deaths.

Another 2981 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospital. The total is now 34,783, and 3832ventilator beds are in use.

As of yesterday, 9.29m people have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 494,209 a second dose.

Matt Hancock said that almost 9 in 10 of all over-80s in the UK have been vaccinated, and more than half of over-70s.

UK Secures Early Access to More Doses of Valneva Vaccine

The UK Government said it had secured access to a further 40 million doses of a promising candidate COVID-19 vaccine made by French biotech firm Valneva.

It brought the total number of secured doses of the inactivated, adjuvanted vaccine to 100 million for supply in 2022.

Ministers said the decision was designed to broaden the UK's ability to secure a wide range of successful vaccines at pace and with different technologies.

"It will also give the UK future flexibility should we need to revaccinate any of the population, the Government said in a statement.

Valneva's VLA2001 candidate consists of inactivated whole virus particles of SARS-CoV-2 with high S-protein density, in combination with two adjuvants, alum and CpG 1018.

It is currently undergoing phase 1 / 2 trials.

Valneva began manufacture of the vaccine last week at its site in Livingston, West Lothian, which has received UK Government backing.

The company said the UK retained options over a further 90 million doses for supply between 2023 and 2025.

Clive Dix, interim chair of the UK Government's Vaccines Taskforce, said: "Valneva's manufacturing site in Scotland is already up and running, ready to supply their promising vaccine as soon as it has proven to be safe, and effective and is approved by the MHRA."

The Government said the latest agreement meant the UK had secured early access to more than 400 million total doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

COVID Protection for BAME Health Professionals

Thousands of doctors from Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic backgrounds (BAME) expressed concerns that they continue to be only partly or not at all protected, from the risk of COVID-19 in their place of work.

72% said they felt only partly protected, or not protected at all, compared with 28% who said they did feel fully protected.

The survey by the British Medical Association (BMA) said the figure contrasted with non-BAME respondents, 60% of whom said they felt only partly protected.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA Council said: "These results underpin a horrible truth; we have known from very early on in the pandemic that health and social care workers of BAME background are more likely to become ill and die from this virus. COVID has exacerbated existing racial and cultural inequities within our health service that have contributed to this disparity."

A total of 7,776 doctors and medical students took part in the survey between December 14 and 17.

Vaccine Conspiracies 

Low likelihood of accepting a coronavirus vaccine was associated with having 'conspiracy suspicions', according to a study.

Research by the University of Bristol and King's College London found that 15% of the UK public believe that reporters, scientists, and government officials were involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about COVID-19. However, this increased to 42%, among those who said they were unlikely to or definitely would not get vaccinated.

Among 'vaccine hesitant' people, 27% said they believed "the real truth about coronavirus is being kept from the public", rising to 64% among those who said they were unlikely to or definitely would not accept the vaccine.

The findings were based on a survey of 4860 UK adults in November and December 2020.

Survey Reveals Pandemic Concerns Over Physical and Mental Health

A survey by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) underlined some of the collateral effects on the nation's health since the start of the pandemic.

It suggested that 63% of people in the UK were concerned about their physical health, while 56% were worried about their mental health.

The survey of 2031 people aged 16 and older found that 46% of people said they had put on weight in the last year.

More than half of people in the UK wanted to become more physically active, the BHF said.

Isle of Man Ends Lockdown

The Isle of Man has exited lockdown following a 25 day 'circuit break'.

The island's Government said it had succeeded in stopping community spread of COVID-19.

The end of the lockdown means that life on the Island can return to near normal. Residents will no longer have to observe social distancing rules, and schools have reopened.

Strict controls on visitors to the Island will remain in place.

Chief Minister, Howard Quayle, said there were "brighter days ahead".

Captain Tom Hospitalised With COVID-19

Captain Sir Tom Moore, the Second World War veteran who raised millions for the NHS during lockdown last year, remains in hospital with COVID-19.

The 100-year-old was admitted to hospital on Sunday following breathing difficulties, his daughter, Hannah, said in a tweet.

She said he was not in intensive care but had been receiving treatment in Bedford Hospital for pneumonia.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his thoughts were with Captain Tom who had "inspired the whole nation".

In April last year, Captain Tom began walking round his garden in aid of NHS Charities Together. By his 100th birthday, on April 30, he had raised £32.79 million in charitable donations.

He was invested as a Knight Bachelor at Windsor Castle in July last year.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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