As Britain Reopens, Scientists Warn of Fertile Ground for Coronavirus Variants

Health Protection

LONDON – As Britons celebrate the lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions earlier this month, some scientists warn that the country risks becoming a breeding ground for new variants of the virus that could be more resistant to vaccines.

Most restrictions were removed July 19, including social distancing regulations and the compulsory wearing of face masks. Indoor venues such as nightclubs reopened for the first time since March 2020.

For many young people in Britain, the changes marked the return of longed-for socializing and partying, a chance to forget the misery of lockdown.

“We’ve been the last ones to get the vaccine, we’ve always been to blame, we’ve been blamed for the spread of the COVID. And it’s just nice to get freedom and just brush it all off,” said one clubgoer in the northern city of Leeds, who did not want to give her name.

But those freedoms could bring added dangers, according to some scientists.

While infection rates have declined in recent days, the relaxation of lockdown rules will likely lead to an increase in transmission, says Emilia Skirmuntt, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Oxford.

“I think there will be more infections than we have seen in the last days. With more infections, there is a bigger chance that we will see a new variant which might be even more infectious,” Skirmuntt told VOA.

Britain has rolled out one of the fastest vaccination programs in the world. Just over 70% of adults are fully vaccinated, meaning millions of people are not fully protected — and unlike in the United States and parts of Europe, those under age 18 have not been offered the vaccine.

“If we have groups which are unvaccinated, they are the danger that the variant, which might be more infectious or better at evading our immune response, will appear there. Teenagers and children are unvaccinated and the new variant might appear among them,” said Skirmuntt.

The combination of a high infection rate and an incomplete vaccination program poses considerable dangers, argues Sterghios Moschos, a virologist at Britain’s University of Northumbria.

“We do know that the countries which have been the most successful in containing the delta variant or the delta+ variant are now seeing transmission in the population amongst the vaccinated individuals,” said Moschos. “It is creating the most perfect fertile ground for the virus, these variants that are present now, to evolve resistance to the vaccine.”

So far, British government scientists say there is no evidence that the virus is becoming more resistant to vaccines. And as more people are vaccinated, total infections should decrease — reducing the scope for the virus to mutate.

And Britain has one of the world’s most advanced genome sequencing programs so can quickly identify any new variants of concern.

Sharon Peacock, executive director and chair of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, says there are twin threats.

“The key thing we need to look out for, actually, is not just a new variant emerging, a brand-new variant emerging, but actually delta (variant) changing to have increasing biological characteristics that could lead to more spread or to increased immune evasion,” Peacock told Reuters.

Only 14% of the global population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. In some low income countries, just 1.1% of the total population has received a single dose. That poses a risk to everyone, said virologist Skirmuntt.

“We need the whole world being vaccinated or having immunity on a certain level. And if only some countries will be vaccinated on that level, that wouldn’t give us this global safety net,” Skirmuntt told VOA.

As long as large populations remain unvaccinated, scientists say the coronavirus will continue to pose a risk to the whole world.

Source: Voice of America