Britain could be left battling against a vaccine-resistant Covid variant if cases are allowed to spiral to 100,000 a day, scientists warned today.
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, claimed letting the coronavirus rip may lead to another mutant strain arising in the UK, which could pose a threat to any hopes of a life without lockdown.
But not all scientists monitoring the pandemic are convinced that the summer surge in cases will inevitably turn the UK into a variant factory.
Seeking to play down the fears, the boss of Britain’s largest Covid surveillance centre pointed out variants are normally either vaccine resistant or more transmissible.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind Covid, is constantly evolving and the majority of mutations are ‘benign’, according to Dr Jeff Barrett, of the Sanger Institute.
The South African ‘Beta’ variant, which can dodge vaccine-triggered immunity, has failed to gain a foothold in the UK. But the more transmissible Indian ‘Delta’ variant quickly became dominant, and now accounts for nine in ten cases.
Ministers warned yesterday cases in Britain could hit more than 100,000 a day next month, following ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19.
The country is currently recording almost 30,000 a day, with the outbreak fuelled by the rapid spread of the Indian Delta variant.
Hospitalisations and deaths are now beginning to tick upwards but Health Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday insisted that the ‘wall of protection’ from vaccines would hold.
Vaccines still work against the Indian mutant strain, drastically cutting the risk of infected people becoming severely ill. But Boris Johnson has already admitted the emergence of a vaccine-resistant variant could threaten plans in the future.
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, (left) warned today that high case numbers could spark a vaccine resistant variant. But Dr Jeff Barrett, who directs the largest Covid surveillance centre in the country, sought to play down the fears saying variants tend to be either more transmissible or vaccine resistant
More than 100 Britons could die each day from Covid when Britain finally emerges from lockdown later this month, according to the Government’s own assumptions. No10 said it expects up to 50,000 cases a day by July 19 Freedom Day and potentially 100,000 daily cases in August. Professor Neil Ferguson said about 0.1 per cent – or one in 1,000 – of people who catch Covid will die from the virus. The above graph shows how cases and deaths could rise based on these remarks. Deaths lag behind case spikes by about three weeks
Dozens of variants have already been spotted across the world but none are thought to render the current crop of jabs useless.
And Oxford University academics who crafted the AstraZeneca jab say it is unlikely that any mutation will ever completely defeat vaccines.
But the spread of one that dodges immunity could still lead to a spike in hospital admissions and deaths, forcing ministers to divot from their plans.
Sir Paul, a Nobel prize winning geneticist, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Letting [the] infection spread to large numbers of people… could give rise to another problem, which is encouraging new variants arising within the UK itself.
‘We know that vaccinated people generally do not get serious disease but they are still getting infected.
Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work against Lambda variant
Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid vaccines are both effective against the troublesome Lambda variant, scientists believe.
The mutant strain has now been spotted in 31 countries — and some doctors fear it is more transmissible than any existing versions.
But in a glimmer of hope, academics in New York say data suggests the variant is still susceptible to vaccines.
New York University Grossman School of Medicine researchers found antibodies triggered by MRNA jabs still neutralised the Lambda variant in laboratory studies.
It is not proof the jabs definitely work in thwarting the strain — but the scientists are confident.
Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are based on mRNA technology, which had never been used to make jabs until the Covid pandemic.
The mutant strain caught the attention of World Health Organization bosses after it was spotted in the UK, US and Germany.
‘This is a situation which can select for variants, and that may give rise to variants that are resistant to the vaccine.
He added: ‘If all controls are lifted and the virus is allowed to let rip, will that result in more resistant variants arising within the country itself which are more difficult to control?’
But Dr Barrett told the programme that although the virus is mutating all the time, the vast majority of these changes tend to be ‘benign’.
‘But then somewhat rarely the virus mutates in a way which makes it either more transmissible or less well neutralised by vaccines,’ he said.
‘We have seen that in the Alpha variant from last year and the Delta variant from this year, when they go from being sort of anonymous to taking over around the world very quickly.’
Asked whether a variant could emerge that is both more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines, he said: ‘One thing that seems to have happened so far is that many mutations are strongly associated either with increased transmissibility or evasion to antibodies, so basically the vaccines working less well.’
But he admitted high cases were ‘clearly one of the big risks’ in the Government’s unlocking strategy.
Dr Barrett was also asked whether he was concerned about the Peruvian ‘Lamba’ variant, which emerged in August last year and has since exploded across South America.
But there have only been eight cases spotted in the UK so far, and there is no sign it is growing.
‘It is clearly at a high frequency in South America,’ he said. ‘But I don’t think it is inherently worrying.’
‘We should keep an eye on it but I don’t think there is any reason to panic just yet.’
He said the virus had key mutations that made it more transmissible, and that these were in a slightly different place compared to other faster spreading variants.
Professor Christina Pagel, a mathematician at University College London, echoed his view, telling MailOnline there was still little reason to be concerned.
‘I think Lambda is definitely a variant that we should be tracking, but I won’t be worried about it until it starts growing week on week and at the moment it’s too early to say,’ she said.
Only the more infectious Covid variants have managed to take hold in the UK so far, and displace other mutant strains.
The more infectious Kent variant spread across Britain within three months last year because of the N501Y mutation that made it more infectious.
But in early May it was replaced by the Indian variant which has the D614G and P681R mutations, which are thought to make it even more infectious.
Public Health England says it is at least 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain.
A ‘Delta plus’ variant has been detected which also carried the K417N mutation that makes it more resistant to vaccines, but it is yet to gain a foothold.
The vaccine-resistant South African variant first arrived on Britain’s shores last year, but its cases have consistently remained below 100 every week.