BRITAIN will share its genomic sequencing capabilities with other countries to help quicker identify new variants of the coronavirus in places with less ability to do so, its health ministry said on Tuesday(26).
New variants of the coronavirus have alarmed scientists, and prime minister Boris Johnson has warned the prospect of a “vaccine-busting” variant could mean that lockdown measures are needed for longer and new travel restrictions are introduced.
Britain said it had carried out more than half the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences submitted to a global database, and would launch a New Variant Assessment Platform which could be used for coronavirus variants and also future pandemics.
“This pandemic has shown that the foundations of so many of the exciting experiences that make life worth living are contingent not just on our health, or the health of our neighbours, but the health of people we’ve never met. When one of us suffers, we all suffer,” health minister Matt Hancock said in a speech at Chatham House.
“So we must work to promote health security in every single part of the world. Not only will this Platform help us better understand this virus and how it spreads, but it will also boost global capability in this important field, so we’re all better prepared for whatever lies ahead.”
As part of the UK’s Presidency of the G7 this year, the health secretary also outlined his vision for a stronger, more collaborative and effective global health system, not just in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, but to ensure the international community is better prepared for future threats.
Dr Isabel Oliver, director of Public Health England’s national infection service, said: “We know that the virus will evolve over time and certain mutations could potentially cause the virus to spread faster, make people sicker, or possibly affect how well vaccines work. Genomic testing is crucial to our efforts to control the virus – it allows us to keep an eye on how the virus is changing and to respond before it’s too late.
“This new initiative will bring Public Health England’s cutting edge science to countries that have little or no ability to sequence and analyse Covid-19 virus strains themselves. It will also give us crucial early warning of new variants emerging around the world that might endanger the UK.”
The three major variants of concern identified so far were discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. All three variants are thought to be more transmissible.
The variant discovered in Britain could also be associated with higher mortality, although the evidence around that is uncertain.
Scientist have also highlighted particular concern that vaccines might not work as well against the variants found in South Africa and Brazil.
Moderna said on Monday(25) it believe its COVID-19 vaccine protects against the British and South African variants, although it will test a new booster shot aimed at the South Africa variant after concluding the antibody response could be diminished.
Britain’s health minister and health officials have said they believe the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines being rolled out in the country work against the UK variant.