The infectious coronavirus variant first identified in the UK is likely to become the dominant form of the virus worldwide, the director of the country’s genetic surveillance program said Thursday, as she predicted that scientists will be hunting for potentially dangerous new mutations of the virus for the next ten years.
Professor Sharon Peacock, a Cambridge academic and director of the Genomics UK Consortium, said the now-dominant variant in the UK had “swept the country” and is “going to sweep the world.”
While current vaccines appear to work against the U.K. variant, Peacock said new mutations could be “particularly problematic with vaccines,” adding that they will likely need to be “tweaked” in the future.
Peacock said the U.K. variant was already mutating in ways that could undermine vaccination efforts, pointing to “five separate times” it had acquired one of the same vaccine-threatening mutations seen in South African and Brazilian variants, making it likely the virus will trouble scientists for years to come.
“Once we get on top of (the virus) or it mutates itself out of being virulent – causing disease – then we can stop worrying about it,” she said, adding that, for now, “we’re still going to be doing this 10 years down the line.”
The emergence of new Covid-19 variants capable of evading, at least partially, the protection conferred by vaccines is another indication the novel coronavirus could be a permanent fixture in the future. Several vaccine makers are already developing booster shots to account for the new variants, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna, which could be ready for use in the next six months.
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South Africa recently dropped plans to roll out the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine after a new analysis suggests the shot provides “minimal protection” against mild disease from the variant circulating in the country. The move runs counter to advice from experts who believe the shot is still of value in preventing severe disease, and the World Health Organization said Wednesday that more data on the shot would be needed before dismissing it.