UK health secretary pulled-up

Matt Hancock answers questions during a press conference in November 2020. Image: Flickr

UK health secretary pulled-up for claiming SA strain makes Covid-19 shots less effective

On Christmas, last year, South Africa’s less-than festive health minister fired a broadside at his UK counterpart after Matt Hancock claimed that the COVID-19 variant discovered in South Africa was ‘spreading quicker than other strains.’

UK health secretary pulled-up

Matt Hancock answers questions during a press conference in November 2020. Image: Flickr

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is at it again. This time claiming the South African coronavirus variant renders Covid-19 vaccines less effective.

On this occasion though, it was the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance who pulled him line and not SA health Minister Zweli Mkhize as was the last time out.

Sir Patrick criticized Hancock for his irresponsible remarks shared in an online webinar this week, during which the health secretary claimed, without clear evidence, that the South African coronavirus variant may make vaccines 50% less effective.

‘Back to square one’

Hancock made the sensational claim in footage obtained by MailOnline, in which he warned that allowing the variant to become the dominant strain in the UK could send his country “back to square one.”

“We are testing that, we’ve got some of the South African variant in Porton Down [a Public Health laboratory] and we’re testing it. And we’ve got a clinical trial in South Africa to check the AstraZeneca vaccine works,” Hancock said during the webinar with travel agents while self-isolating.

“Nevertheless, if you vaccinate the entire population and then you get in a new variant that evaded the vaccine, then you’d be back to square one.”

He then claimed there was “evidence in the public domain” that the South African variant reduces vaccine efficacy by “about 50%.”  

To Hancock’s credit, he quickly added that: “We are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public.”

My dear Matt, ‘you just can’t’

The remarks though did not sit well with chief advisor Sir Patrick Vallance who berated the health secretary, saying “you just can’t” take laboratory studies and equate what will happen in people, The Times reported. 

Sir Patrick acknowledged that the studies did suggest that the immune system may find it harder to recognise the South African and Brazilian variants, but urged people to wait for human data from both the countries vaccination programmes.

Mr Hancock was referring

The MailOnline reported that the South African strain — called B.1.351 — has key mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear might make it difficult for the immune system to recognize.

“The SA strain is also believed to be at least 60% more infectious than the regular coronavirus and even more transmissible than the Kent variant that ripped through the UK and plunged England into its third national lockdown,” the publication added.

‘I wouldn’t say this in public’ 

Talking about the possibility of summer holidays being on the cards this year, Hancock, said travel restrictions last year were based on the number of cases.

“When an area had a low number of cases then travel was fine. The complication we’ve got now is the new vaccine makes things better here, but the new variants put that at risk.”

“Because if you have a variant that gets round the vaccine – and there’s evidence in the public domain, although we are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public – that the South African variant reduces by about 50% the vaccine efficacy.”

The official line from Number 10 is that there is not enough evidence yet to suggest the South African, or even the Brazil strains, are immune-resistant.