Scientific advisers to Downing Street have urged ministers to take more action in supporting international vaccination efforts in order to combat rising global infections and prevent the future establishment of new variants in the UK.
The emergence of a new variant poses the “biggest threat” in the UK’s fight against Covid-19, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the government in a meeting last month.
With a high degree of immunity throughout the population, the introduction of an immune-evading variant would be of “particular concern”, Sage members said, according to minutes released on Friday.
Unless more is done to increase oversees vaccination efforts by sharing doses or supporting increased manufacturing, the continued global circulation of Covid-19 will lead to the evolution of new dangerous variants, the experts warn.
Although officials are confident that the UK is now through the worst of its epidemic, the international situation remains precarious. Globally, daily infections are approaching 700,000, with countries struggling to vaccinate their populations.
Sage members said in a meeting held on 22 July: “Substantial global circulation of Sars-CoV-2 will lead to the evolution of new variants and continued risk of importation to the UK.
“Reducing prevalence globally will, therefore, reduce the risk to the UK. Multilateral coordination will be important in achieving this.”
Sage suggests supporting specific vaccination efforts in countries where there are higher numbers of immunocompromised people due to HIV infection. This “may be particularly beneficial” in minimising the risk of new variants emerging, the experts add.
The advisers also say that, “border measures may also reduce the risk to the UK, though these will delay rather than prevent the importation of variants”.
On the back of Sage’s warnings, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on coronavirus said it was a “shameful abdication of our international responsibility” that millions of vulnerable people in some of the world’s poorest countries remain unvaccinated at a time when Covid-19 is surging.
Just 1.1 per cent of people in low-income countries have received one vaccine dose, compared with 53.9 per cent in high-income nations, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library.
Last week, the government confirmed it will be sharing nine million of its Covid vaccine doses with the rest of the world, five million of which will be going to the 92 poorest countries.
However, this falls far short of what is needed to reach the World Health Organisation’s target of vaccinating 10 per cent of the population in every country by the end of September, the APPG said.
Caroline Lucas, vice chair of the APPG on coronavirus, said: “The government must listen to its own scientific advisers and urgently step up efforts to vaccinate the world.
“That should include a concrete commitment to donating one vaccine dose overseas for each one administered in the UK, supporting a global Covid vaccine patents waiver and boosting vaccine manufacturing capabilities in low- and middle-income countries.”
It comes as Public Health England (PHE) said that 37 cases of the B.1.621 variant, first detected in Colombia, have been detected in England.
The variant, which is “under investigation”, has shown signs of evading the immune response generated by vaccination or previous infection, according to PHE.
It said: “There is preliminary laboratory evidence to suggest that vaccination and previous infection may be less effective at preventing infection.
“However, this data is very limited and more research is required. There is no evidence to suggest that (it) is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant.”
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