There are a number of reasons to be cautious about the findings from the UK, they say. Firstly, the UK only sequences the virus from less than 10 per cent of all COVID-19 cases. While this is still a large number of cases to analyse, it would be expected to see at least 50 per cent of cases sequenced when doing in-depth analyses linking sequencing data with epidemiological data, to ensure the data is accurate.
Secondly, the vast majority of countries, including the USA, do little or no sequencing of the virus. “Therefore, rather than singling out the UK and South Africa as having variant strains of concern, we should interpret the finding from the UK as demonstrating that strain variation in transmission occurs for this pathogen and there are almost certainly more variants that have the same ability around the world, but remain unidentified.
“We do not actually know where this variant originated from – it could well have been imported into the UK, rather than have evolved there. Therefore, we need to be suspicious of any strain from anywhere.”
Knowledge about the new variants will assist in New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19, the experts say. “We should continue to strengthen our infection controls at the border and increase our capacity to respond to an outbreak using the full combined force of all tools now at our disposal. These things are already happening.”
Professors Hill and Cox recommend the New Zealand Government ensures that approval processes for new vaccines and national vaccine distribution planning are in place as quickly as possible, so they do not inhibit decision-making about when a vaccine programme can commence.
They also recommend being very careful to choose the “right” vaccine, so as not to precipitate conditions that promote the emergence of new virus variants.
“A vaccine that has relatively low protection against infection, and/or has relatively low protection against disease, should be avoided if a vaccine that protects better against infection and disease is available, even if it is more expensive.”
Article by Professors Hill and Cox published today by Newsroom: