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7 March, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

Premature sedation

How the emergence of a new strain has impacted the fight against coronavirus disease in the United Kingdom

More than 15 million Britons have now received a Covid vaccination – a higher proportion than any other major economy, with more than 90 per cent of the very elderly and vulnerable already protected. There are hopes that every Briton over the age of 15 will have been immunised by May. It is seen as one of the few triumphs of Boris Johnson’s government, which has been battered by the very high number of Covid deaths in Britain and accusations of incompetence and indecision over the past year.

  Yet the optimism has been dampened by several worrying events in recent days. The new variants of the disease, mainly those discovered in south-east England, in Brazil and in South Africa, have proved much more contagious and are still spreading. And there are fears that one of the two main vaccines being used, developed by Oxford University and AstraZenica, may prove less effective in dealing with the variants, especially the one from South Africa.

  For this reason, the government is refusing to lift the latest lockdown order, which began at the start of the year and was intended to halt the fast rise in the spread of the virus – a rise that was at least as deadly as the first outbreak last spring. Many people are now heartily sick of being forced to stay indoors and unable to go to the shops, and many Conservative members of parliament are urging the government to relax the restrictions and allow schools to reopen. More and more people are also refusing to obey the rules: the police have broken up illegal parties secretly arranged by young people, and are imposing heavy fines on those who visit each other in their houses. Critics say that unless the laws are obeyed, there is no point in having them and argue that it would be better to allow more freedom now.

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But the scientists and those who track the statistics of the pandemic insist that any premature easing of lockdown will cause a steep rise in infections again and will nullify all the efforts made so far to contain the virus. Until more than half the population is vaccinated and unless urgent new vaccines can be developed or existing ones modified to deal with the mutations of Covid-19, the population is still at risk. And although Britain has moved faster than other nations to set up mass vaccination centres across the country, it has suffered a terrible toll from the virus: more people have died of the disease in Britain per head of population than in almost any other country. The scientists say that much still needs to be done before things improve.

  Luckily, the scientific community is responding rapidly to the new threats. The vaccine developed by Oxford University in partnership with the Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZenica can be easily modified to deal with new mutations, its makers say. They also dismiss the criticisms in Germany and several other European countries that the Oxford vaccine does not prevent infection among those older than 55. There is no evidence that is ineffective: there are simply not many tests that have been carried out on older people. The vaccine makers have also insisted that protection is offered that will stop anyone becoming seriously ill or dying, even if they have been infected with one of the new mutations, including the more deadly version prevalent in South Africa. And finally, they argue, the vaccine not only protects those who receive it; it also stop anyone passing the disease on to another person.

  Britain’s scientists have been at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. They were among the first to set up a full-scale genetic analysis that could trace all the new variants of the virus – and were quickly to identify mutations that developed in southern England, in Brazil and also in South Africa. Their work will continue to be vital, as it is now known that Covid-19 is mutating all the time, like flu. It may never be eradicated fully, as the virus can quickly adapt to new circumstance and find ways to evade the vaccines that stop it spreading. It future, the scientists say, a new vaccine may be needed to give everyone a booster jab at least once a year to ensure they remain immune to any mutation.

   The research laboratories in Britain are now well funded and have a large staff, and the vaccines can be manufactured nearby in large British medical institutions. Already these laboratories have developed some astonishingly successful new treatments unrelated to Covid over this past year. A treatment has been found for malaria, a disease that kills millions in Africa every year and which has so far resisted all attempts to combat it effectively. In another breakthrough, a programme has been developed using huge computing power to work out how proteins fold, a key step in understanding how diseases develop. And British scientists are at the forefront of the search for drugs that are effective in treating people who have already become sick with Covid. As a result far fewer people are now dying of the disease than the numbers a year ago, when little was known about what to do to stop the worst effective of the infection.

   The race to vaccinate the entire country is a major political challenge, and the good results so far, only 10 weeks since vaccinations began, have probably restored some of the government’s battered credibility. Until then, it seemed that Britain did everything wrong and responded too slowly or too inconsistently to the challenges posed by Covid. Boris Johnson was criticised for relying on optimism and pandering to popularity without taking the tough decisions that needed to be taken. His popularity has fallen fast since the general election victory in 2019, and there was even talk among Conservative members of parliament of replacing him with another politician who was better able to focus on policy details. Johnson’s leadership, however, has now been partially restored by the very swift roll-out of the vaccination programme.

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   Nevertheless, not everyone is being covered. Many people, especially among the black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities, are still suspicious of the vaccines and have been influenced by extremists and fanatics who use social media to spread distrust. Some black people argue that the vaccines were developed to protect white people and ensure continued white domination; other peddlers of fake news claim the vaccines are a way of implanted micro-chips into people so that the government can control them. Other ridiculous claims have also fostered mistrust.

  In response, the government has recruited thousands of doctors and minority group leaders to go round from house to house to explain to people that the vaccines are safe and effective. New laws are also being proposed to impose very heavy fines and even prison sentences on those who spread lies about the vaccines.

   Britons are now poised between optimism and despair. Many people are furious that the banning of flights from countries with new variants of Covid has only just been enforced. Others are angry that in future anyone, including Britons, coming to the country will have to be quarantined in a hotel at the very high cost of around £1,700 for 10 days. Other people disagree and are demanding that travel restrictions should be relaxed to make summer holidays possible. So far, however, the rules remain rigid. But the nation is running out of patience. It is a race now between the vaccines and the virus. 


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