The UK’s build-up of Covid-19 immunity could help in the fight against the Omicron variant of the virus, it has been suggested.
Health experts said data on the new strain will need to be gathered but the UK’s immunity levels could help “cushion” its effects.
Two cases of the variant have already been discovered in Nottingham and Essex and were contracted in South Africa. The cases are linked and 10 countries – including Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana – have all been placed on the UK’s red travel list.
Professor Gordon Dougan, from the Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Cambridge, said the UK’s high level of immunity, whether through vaccinations or previous Covid-19 infection, will hopefully provide a “cushion” of protection when it comes to the new variant,
The vaccines expert said he doubts whether the new strain will be able to get around immunity completely.
He told Times Radio: “We’re very lucky in one sense, in that we’ve already built up either natural immunity in those who’ve been infected and we’ve also got vaccine-induced immunity.
“I doubt the variant will escape completely protection – we’ll have to wait and see – but we’ve got that sort of cushion, if you like, to give us a little bit more confidence that we can deal with the situation.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, Associate Professor of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Group (Spi-M, the modelling subgroup of Sage), said: “In a way, we’ve been sort of running hot for quite a long period of time – if we look at when children went back to school in August in Scotland and in September in England and Wales, we did see an awful lot of cases, particularly in younger people.
“There was a suggestion that actually we had built quite a level of natural immunity in that younger generation that absolutely will help and it’s probably one of the reasons why we’re having low hospital admissions and low deaths at the moment compared with elsewhere.
“But, of course, if this variant starts to evade that natural immunity, then that’s more concerning because we don’t know that yet.”
He added that it is still early days but “hopefully” more data will be available that will allow scientists to model what can happen when new variants develop.
“I suspect it’s going to be a while yet before we really have confidence as to what this new variant is going to do,” he said.
Laurence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick, said the Government’s speedy actions on requirements around travel show it has learned after “dithering around” on previous occasions.
He added: “It’s better to be safe than sorry, really, and I think we’ve learned the lesson of dithering around previously whilst we learn more about this variant – and we do need to know more about its infectiousness and more about its ability to resist the vaccine. It’s far better to be cautious.”