New Variants 'Inevitable', but CMO Predicts Wide Portfolio of Vaccines in 2 Years

Peter Russell

April 02, 2021

Editor's note, 3 April 2021: This article was updated with information from the MHRA.

It would be unrealistic to think that border controls could prevent new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus entering the UK, Professor Chris Whitty has warned.

Prof Chris Whitty/RSM

Current policy was to limit their spread, England's Chief Medical Officer said. He also repeated his prediction that COVID-19 would become a permanent feature of life in the foreseeable future and would have to be managed as a recurrent disease. Prof Whitty, who was taking part in a webinar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine, predicted that COVID-19 cases were likely to rise again as the country emerged from lockdown.

New Variants

"Once we start to actually open things up, so R creeps up a bit above 1, which is what we anticipate is likely to happen, and we've got a bit further down the current roadmap, then if a variant comes in, it has the opportunity to spread," he said. "And if it starts spreading – if it's got competitive advantage – it'll outcompete others and at some point it will become more important."

However, "we have to accept that the idea that you can stop any variants coming in to the UK at all is not a realistic starting point".

Whether dealing with existing strains of SARS-CoV 2 or new variants, "what we're trying to do at the moment is slow this down; and the way you do that with any border policy is you don't worry about any country that's got less than you have, but you do worry about any country that's got more than you have", he said.

Future Vaccines

Answering a range of questions about the pandemic, the UK's most senior doctor said current vaccines, and the ability to update them to tackle new variants would allow us "to find a way through this in the long run".

He said: "If we scroll forward 2 years, I think we're going to have a very wide portfolio of vaccines." Until then we were in "a period of risk".

"So, we're being cautious because we've got such a difficult situation to go through at the moment."

Asked by webinar host Sir Simon Wessely, professor of psychological medicine at King's College London, about the future of COVID-19, Prof Whitty said: "COVID is not going to go away. This is now a disease that for the rest of our careers is going to be around."

He said: "It is clear that, you know, we are going to have to manage it at some point rather like we manage flu."

Also, in time, we would need "to work out some balance which actually keeps it at a low level, minimises deaths as best we can, but in a way that the population tolerates, and do as much of the heavy lifting as we can by medical countermeasures: vaccines, I suspect, possibly in due course drugs, things like that, which actually means we can minimise mortality whilst not maximising the economic, and particularly social, impacts on our fellow citizens."

Dealing With Politicians

Although not tackled directly over reports that he had wanted the Government to lockdown faster when COVID cases were rising rapidly before Christmas, Prof Whitty, who has taken part in numerous Downing Street briefings alongside Prime MinisterBoris Johnson, insisted that he would not hesitate to make his views known to politicians if he thought they were straying beyond policy matters and into the technical arena.

"Most of the decisions that I'm dealing with are in between those two, and depending on where I think it is on that spectrum will determine whether I actually really forcefully insert myself into the discussion," he said.

"If I think it's mainly a technical decision, and I think the political leader is trying to take it, I will say, 'I don't think that's your call, actually'."

He added: "Equally, if it's primarily a political decision, it shouldn't be me trying to make a political decision for a political leader."

Vaccination & Blood Clots

Later on Thursday, the MHRA said it had now received 22 reports of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) and eight reports of other thrombosis events with low platelets out of 8.1 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine administered. There were no reports for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

The regulator said: "On the basis of this ongoing review, the benefits of the vaccines against COVID-19 continue to outweigh any risks."

The BBC said the regulator also confirmed newspaper reports of seven deaths due to blood clots.


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