COVID vaccine weekly: UK closes its borders to India to safeguard effects of vaccination

COVID vaccine weekly: UK closes its borders to India to safeguard effects of vaccination

This week the UK passed the milestone of having given 10 million people a second COVID-19 vaccine dose. This means that over 20% of UK adults are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The effects are beginning to show. COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths have fallen drastically as vaccine coverage has ramped up. But importantly, rates for all of these measures have declined more steeply among older age groups where the majority are fully vaccinated. This shows Britain’s improvement isn’t just down to lockdown.

Politicians moved this week to protect these gains. After initial success in controlling the virus, India has seen cases soar again, and in response, the UK government added the country to its “red list”, essentially banning travel there. The concern is not just about case numbers, but also a variant of the virus now taking hold in India: B1617.

This variant is a double mutant, explains Grace Roberts, research fellow in virology at Queen’s University Belfast. Both of the key mutations it carries are thought to have the potential to make it less susceptible to vaccination. One of them may also make it more transmissible than early forms of the virus.

Rajib Dasgupta of Jawaharlal Nehru University asks whether B1617 is behind India’s surge in cases. Possibly, but there may be a number of factors at play. It appears B117, the much more transmissible “Kent” variant that drove the UK’s second wave, has also hit India. Public negligence and poor sanitation are also suspected of driving infections.

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In the face of countries struggling to control new outbreaks, surveying suggests that in places such as the UK where large quantities of vaccines have been ordered, the majority of people would support redistributing some doses. The public favour reallocation based on need, followed by inability to afford vaccination. There’s less support, though, for prioritising countries that developed the COVID-19 vaccines.

Meanwhile, with production capacity limited and safety restrictions being introduced for certain vaccines, some countries are looking to an alternative: Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. As Liz Breen and Sarah Schiffling write, there’s a case for diversifying supply given that most supply chains are experiencing difficulties. The vaccine is affordable too. However, in the EU the European Medicines Agency has yet to approve the Russian vaccine.

A lack of appetite for the AstraZeneca vaccine in particular in driving this hunt for alternatives. However, while a link between it and several forms of rare blood clots has been deemed likely by European and British health authorities, reaching a definite conclusion on what risk it poses will be very difficult, writes JJ Coughlan of the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Estimates of how frequently these blood clots occur under normal circumstances are uncertain, and the underlying risk of people developing clots regardless of whether they’re vaccinated might not be even across the population. Distribution of the vaccine has also been uneven – certain people are more likely to have had it – and together this makes comparing the relative risk difficult. More time and probably a lot more data will be needed to get a definitive answer on its safety.

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