COVID vaccine weekly: Britain expands rollout to avoid variant delaying end of lockdown

Pubs, restaurants and cafes in England, Scotland and Wales are now able to serve customers indoors. Andy Rain/EPA-EFE

England, Scotland and Wales eased their lockdown restrictions this week, despite concerns about the rise in new cases caused by the B16172 variant. If the variant continues to take hold, removing the UK’s remaining restrictions on June 21 could be delayed, the prime minister has warned. In the meantime, “when you get the call, get the jab,” he has urged.

Vaccines have played – and will continue to play – a key role in getting the country to open up, says Utkarsh Agrawal, research fellow in health data science at the University of St Andrews. Research can demonstrably prove that they’ve reduced hospitalisations and deaths independently of measures such as lockdown and social distancing.

Read more: How COVID vaccines have pushed the UK towards the end of lockdown

But the question now is whether they’ll continue to have this effect in the face of new variants, particularly B16172. The University of Oxford is trying quickly to find out. Research doesn’t yet have a definitive answer, but early findings suggest that the vaccines being used in the UK only suffer a small decline in performance when facing the variant.

Given this, vaccination surges are taking place at B16172 hotspots across the UK. These are a great idea, writes Zania Stamataki, senior lecturer in viral immunology at the University of Birmingham – but remember that it takes several weeks for vaccine-induced immunity to build. Therefore in these sorts of situations, it makes sense to use other control measures at the same time. While vaccine coverage creeps up, local lockdowns could remain a feature of British life.

Read more: B16172 Q&A: all you need to know about this SARS-CoV-2 variant

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It’s also worth remembering that vaccines won’t offer comprehensive protection against getting infected, writes Tara Hurst, lecturer in biomedical science at Birmingham City University. Setting aside the issue of variants, there are still several factors that can prevent a vaccine from fully protecting someone. A vaccine might elicit a weak immune response if a person is old, in poor health or on certain medications, for example.

Read more: COVID vaccines: some fully vaccinated people will still get infected – here’s why

This is why Britain is already considering giving some people a third, booster vaccine dose to top up their immunity, writes Andrew Lee, reader in global public health at the University of Sheffield, and it’s possible that a booster programme could begin before winter arrives. The UK government is investigating the benefits of giving seven different types of vaccine as a booster, including some that are still in the later stages of development.

Read more: UK vaccine booster Q&A: what will be given and when, explained by public health expert

Vials of COVID vaccines from AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson
Researchers believe giving a third dose that’s different from the first two could lead to an even bigger boost in immunity. Miguel Toro/Shutterstock

But before the government can think about third doses, it needs to ensure as many people as possible get fully vaccinated with the first and second. Seychelles could be an indication of what happens if coverage doesn’t reach its maximum.

Vaccination rates there are high – 71% of people have had at least one dose – yet cases are surging, writes C. Raina MacIntyre of the University of New South Wales. This could be because the vaccines being used there – AstraZeneca’s and Sinopharm’s – are thought to have lower efficacy than some others. This in combination with the vaccination rate could be leaving the country is short of the herd immunity threshold (although the latest data suggests AstraZeneca may be more effective than previous studies have suggested).

Read more: COVID is surging in the world’s most vaccinated country. Why?

If driving up vaccine coverage is so important, is it a good idea to pay people to get vaccinated? Christopher Robertson, professor of law at Boston University, argues this is a workable idea – at least in the US. Payments and cash prizes have been effective in driving numerous other healthy behaviours, and while it could be argued that payments are coercive, they’re certainly less problematic than simply mandating uptake, which has been used in the US in past to ensure uptake of smallpox vaccines.

Read more: Paying people to get vaccinated might work – but is it ethical?

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