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Covid-19: Variant

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they first became aware (1) of the new variant of COVID-19, and (2) that such a variant of the virus was prevalent in the areas placed into Tier 4 on 20 December 2020.

My Lords, the second variant is a very serious matter. On 8 December, analysis of all genomes available in Kent showed that a new variant was circulating. Ministers were notified on 11 December. On Monday 14 December, the Health Secretary informed Parliament, PHE released a statement and the Government held a press conference on the new variant.

My Lords, variant B117 was identified in October. From the second week of December, virus cases started to rocket in London and the south-east, yet the Government’s focus was on how to keep people mixing at Christmas, not on dealing with the alarming spread of the virus, ignoring public health experts who said that a tight lockdown was urgently required. What message of apology does the Minister have for those families attending funerals because the Government acted too slowly to help save lives?

My Lords, I am afraid that I just do not recognise the noble Lord’s proposition. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new variants are appearing all the time. Many of them have passed through the process, but identifying those that are threatening, have more transmissibility and are significantly different is extremely complex. As I said very clearly, it was on 8 December that, after analysing all the genomes available in Kent, we showed that an important new variant was circulating.

My Lords, clearly these variants are extremely—[Inaudible]—for all sorts of reasons. Regrettably, the Minister did not answer the question put by my noble friend Lady Thornton yesterday, when she questioned incomplete vaccination. Can the Minister give us clear figures on the risk of mutant varieties of the virus with a longer period between the two injections of the Pfizer vaccine?

My Lords, the noble Lord has more medical expertise than me to be able to answer that question, but the briefing that I have is that the significant mutation in the Kent variant is not of a kind that should affect the efficacy of either a single dose or two doses of the vaccine. This comes as a significant relief to the vaccine programme. We remain on the balls of our feet, looking out for any variations that might affect vaccine deployment, but at this stage we have not found anything that poses a significant threat.

My Lords, the ONS data in the second week of December showed that the number of cases from all variants of the virus had rocketed. Why did the Government fail to act on that information until late December?

The noble Baroness is entirely right that the EpiData showed that the figures shot up in December; that is exactly why we looked extremely carefully at the genomic data from Kent and other places. As she knows, genomic data takes time to process—the tests can take a week to turn around. Looking at all the variants and matching EpiData figures with genomic data is an enormously complicated mathematical task. We moved as swiftly as possible and far faster than in many other countries.

My Lords, at the Downing Street press conference of 5 January, we were told that people had protection from the new variant if they had already been infected. What is the Government’s estimate of the number of people in the UK who now have antibodies after contracting the virus and are therefore likely to be immune? What is their approach to the large population of such people, estimated by Professor Neil Ferguson to be at 25% to 30% in London, and their need for vaccination?

My Lords, PHE weekly seroprevalence data suggests that antibody prevalence among blood donors aged 16-plus in England is 6.9%, which is consistent with other data that we have. The MHRA has considered this and has decided that vaccinating is just as important for those who have had Covid-19 as it is for those who have not.

How are demographic and NHS outcome data and test results from patients across the UK being collated to identify patterns suggesting further new variants, reinfections, changes in risk factors to severe disease, such as malnutrition, and planning for managing long Covid and modelling ICU provision?

The noble Baroness alludes to a world of analytical complexity, which is very much what we have to look forward to. The way in which this new variant has popped up and has been dramatically more transmissible presents a wholly different level of threat compared with the one that we were dealing with just six weeks ago. It is a matter of grave concern to all of us that this mutation has happened. However, I reassure noble Lords that we have very strong genomic capability in this country. Roughly 5% of all tests are analysed. It is only 5% but that is more than in most other countries, and we are putting in the analytical muscle to be able to process that data.

My Lords, we are of course facing a terrible and very serious infection, so are the Government contemplating further restrictions? If so, when will we know that there are going to be further restrictions? It seems to me that the ones we have right now are not working.

My Lords, the decisions about further restrictions in this country are a cross-departmental matter and are, frankly, above my pay grade. To address the noble Baroness’s point directly, the new variant is a very serious matter. It is as though a turbocharger has been attached to the engine of a high-performance car, which is going round the racetrack faster and faster. This mutation is very similar to ones in South Africa and Brazil, and, experts assess, will happen in many places around the world. We are now dealing with a significantly different virus and we have to adapt our reaction to it accordingly.

As part of the science, mathematicians run numbers on the spread of variants in an attempt to see whether one is getting an edge; these saw the new variant gaining in the east of England and London by November. Why did a significant localised increase in one variant not trigger an immediate precautionary response, rather than prevarication that it might be about behaviour? What evidence is there that behaviour can favour one variant over another?

I am terribly sorry but the noble Baroness is not right about that chronology. Through backward tracing and by looking at historic data, we were able to identify that the variant had been present in Kent as far back as September, but it was only through backward tracing that we were able to figure that out. Further analysis was commissioned on 18 December and NERVTAG concluded that the variant was much more transmissible than others in circulation. Before that, we relied on hunches. When the science changed, so did our decisions.

Andrew Miller, president of the Australian Medical Association in Western Australia, said:

“Until we get more data that shows that AstraZeneca is as good as the others, the scientific and medical risk that you take is that you won’t get herd immunity. The political risk is that you will get a good vaccine for the rich and a not so good vaccine for the poor.”

Is it not just a fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine is better than nothing but it will not stop the pandemic—especially the new variant?

I categorically reject that analysis. All the vaccines are effective. The MHRA and the JCVI have been explicit about that, and I invite the noble Lord to look at the data.

My Lords, my noble friend rightly underlines that new variants are appearing not just here but anywhere in the world. Can he explain the process for notifying such variants worldwide and say how any assessment of their characteristics is passed on?

My noble friend asks a very challenging question. The honest truth is that we have to look at the systems whereby that data is exchanged. CMOs around the world have extremely regular contact with each other, and a lot of the data is exchanged through the formal links of the scientific community. But I think that there is a case for more structured intergovernmental exchange of data about the new variants, because this will be the major challenge of the year ahead.

The Minister mentioned a number of countries. Is there sufficient exchange between all of them or could more be done in that regard? Is there anything that the public could usefully know about the new variant’s transmission traits—whether it is airborne, for example?

The exchange of information between the scientific community has worked extremely well during this pandemic and epidemic, and I pay tribute to it for the open-hearted and transparent way in which it has exchanged data across political, cultural and national boundaries. In terms of transmission, the noble Viscount alludes to something that is very difficult to pin down. It is not clear what proportion of the disease is transmitted through the air and what proportion by touch and manual transmissibility. That is a very frustrating conundrum. The CMO guides us to believe that there is more transmissibility through the air than by touch, but it is absolutely essential that people keep their distance and wash their hands.