New variants of the virus have been identified in the last couple of weeks, including a fast-spreading one recently identified in the UK and another in South Africa.
Meanwhile, the UK’s vaccination programme has seen more than half a million people receive their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who is part of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday: “It is a race – between providing the vaccine to prevent the illness, the treatments to treat people who get sick – against the virus and the way it will inevitably change in the future.”
He stressed that it was important to distribute vaccines globally, and said he believed they would make an “enormous” difference in 2021.
The new coronavirus variant identified in the UK led to several countries shutting off travel.
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It could be up to 70% more transmissible and was behind 60% of London’s cases by December, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said it is unlikely the strain won’t respond to a vaccine.
Farrar said when the strain was announced: “The mutation is a reminder of the power of the virus to adapt, and that cannot be ruled out in the future. Acting urgently to reduce transmission is critical.
“Difficult as this year has already been, we must stay humble. There are still many unknowns about COVID-19 and it remains a grave threat to us all.”
More than 600,000 people had received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by 20 December, the government said.
Professor Calum Semple, a respiratory disease expert and another member of Sage, said herd immunity could be achieved in the UK by the summer of 2021 via the vaccination programme.
The country’s dose supply could be bolstered from this week if the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency approves the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccine, as reported in The Telegraph and The Times.
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