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Surrey Expert Explains How South African Variant Arrived Here

Published on: 4 Feb, 2021
Updated on: 5 Feb, 2021

Alasdair Cook, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Surrey – Photo Alasdair Cook

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

A Surrey scientist specialising in disease surveillance, response and prevention is urging everyone offered a coronavirus test to take it.

Alasdair Cook says the testing drive will help minimise transmission as the South African variant is being discovered in limited parts of England including Woking and Egham, .

The professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Surrey, explains how the strain may have arrived here, and how it differs.

He also speaks of the remarkable achievements in science over the past year, and on the infectious optimism of the late Captain Sir Tom Moore.

Professor Alasdair Cook

How does the South African variant differ in transmissibility?

We are becoming more familiar with the ways a virus interacts with our bodies. The first stage is contact with the virus, followed by its entry into our cells. The spike proteins on the outside of the virus adhere to the surface of our cells.

Among other differences, the South African and the UK variants have a change in this spike protein which makes it more adherent, conferring increased transmissibility.

Intensive testing and controls give us the best chance of minimising transmission but it is a race against time.

If you are invited to take a test, please accept and exercise the utmost care in following guidelines.

What effect does the variant have on the body?

Inside the cells, the changes the virus causes lead to the signs of disease with which we are now familiar.

There is no firm evidence at present that the South African variant acts differently inside the cells, so we haven’t seen any changes in the nature of the Covid disease it causes.

But we must continue to be vigilant and monitor the situation in case new evidence emerges.

What do you know about the efficacy of the various vaccines on the South African variant? Is their level of protection reduced by this particular mutation?

Since these are relatively new variants, we must remain open-minded about the protection offered by the various vaccines.

But all the evidence to date is that the vaccines will protect against disease and especially the most severe forms of it.

What is less clear is how much impact vaccination will have on transmission but again, at present it is reasonable to expect vaccination will lead to less transmission.

Yet everyone must follow government guidelines to stay at home, maintain social distancing, wear a face-mask and maintain regular hand-washing.

What are possible explanations of how the South African variant came to be detected in Surrey people with no travel links?

The coronavirus, like all viruses, randomly mutates. That the same mutation may occur in more than one place is not impossible, but it is more likely the variant found in people without travel links in Woking and the other locations is the same as that found in those people who did have travel links.

So, how did it get here? Remember that even though this variant is more highly transmissible, there is no evidence it causes more severe disease. Whatever the variant involved, most infected people will not feel unwell or only be mildly affected.

However careful they were, they will probably have had some contact with other travellers, a few of whom may also become infected without feeling unwell, and these in turn may have infected others.

This undetected spread is the likeliest way for the South African variant to have arrived in Woking and the other locations.

It is highly probable that further cases of infection with the South African variant will also be found without any known history of travel or contact with travellers.

The 11 cases found so far were the result of random checks on just five to 10 per cent of swabs, so almost inevitably there will be others.

Clearly, this is an unnerving time for everybody. Can you share any good news on coronavirus that may offer hope?

First, it is easy to forget the incredible success of scientists around the world in developing this range of effective vaccines and also of the vaccine manufacturers in producing millions of doses. None of this is easy.

Second, in the UK the roll-out of vaccination has been very successful and now many of our most vulnerable people are protected. It is tremendously encouraging that the AstraZeneca vaccine has been shown to reduce transmission by up to 67%.

Third, we are seeing the tide turning and the rate of spread reducing. Every one of us can contribute to this by continuing to follow government advice, bearing the hardships it brings.

Finally, we can remind ourselves of the inspiring words from the much-loved and sadly lost Captain Sir Tom Moore: “Please always remember, tomorrow will be a good day.”

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