LOCKDOWN is unlikely to be lifted soon and social distancing could be in place until Spring 2022, experts have said – even if the vaccines prevent spread of the virus.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine prevents people from catching and transmitting the virus to others, as well as severe disease, developers announced today, boosting hope for normality within months.
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Dr Andrew Pollard, chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trial and co-author of the paper, told BBC Radio 4 Today that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab could have a “huge impact” on transmission.
A Tory minister described it as a “turning point” while the Health Secretary Matt Hancock rejoiced that “vaccines are the way out of this pandemic”.
Experts agreed it would mean the lockdown is lifted earlier than if the vaccine has no effect on transmission.
However, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), warned against “getting too excited” about the study findings.
He told The Sun: “Yes it will reduce transmission.
“But we showed a couple of weeks ago in a preprint that even if every single person in the UK was vaccinated with the Oxford vaccine it would not bring the R down to less than 1.”
The R rate is a measurement of if the outbreak is growing or shrinking. The value needs to remain below 1 for Covid cases to fall, and is currently between 0.7 and 1.1 in the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said before exiting the lockdown is even considered, the R rate needs to have clearly come down, along with hospitalisations and deaths.
Prof Hunter said with an R over 1, “the infection would still spread, although we would see substantially less severe disease.
“I suspect we will have continue to have some degree of social distancing till at least spring 2022.”
Prof Hunter said any restrictions needed will be much weaker than the current rules crippling people’s lives and the economy.
He believes some restrictions could start to ease from early March this year onwards, when the Prime Minister hopes for schools to reopen.
“As we move into spring the better weather will also reduce R so even more easing as we move through spring and into summer”, Prof Hunter said.
“Personally, I think this summer will be, well not normal, but it will be a lot closer to normal.
“But I think we may see another surge in cases next autumn and probably some tightening of the rules again, but I really doubt it will be as tough as this winter.”
Asked why restrictions would be needed for so long, Prof Hunter explained: “The risk will largely be to people who have not had the vaccine for whatever reason, but none of the vaccines are 100 per cent effective even before the new variant.
“So by themselves vaccines will not be able to bring the R down to less than 1.
“It’s clear that vaccination will not stop the virus spreading in society, especially given the new variants.”
Oxford scientists found there was a 67 per cent drop in positive swabs among those already vaccinated, which is positive news, but also means some people will still catch and spread the virus and it will remain in circulation.
Prof Hunter said we will continue to see cases, hospitalisations and deaths mainly in the most vulnerable people who have declined their jab.
He said it was society’s “responsibility” to protect those who have not had their jab.
Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, said there was also a danger to those in their 40s, 30s and younger if the lockdown was lifted too early, during the vaccine rollout.
All over 50s could be given their first dose as early as the end of March.
But Dr Preston told The Sun: “If we came out when all the over 50s were vaccinated, would we be happy with a situation where you’re almost certain to get it?
“Thirty-five million people is a lot of hosts for this virus.
“If we are saying no more masks, no more social distancing, which is essentially going back to normal, the virus is so highly infectious, it would just rip through in a very short space of time.
“And there will be people who are young, in 30s, 40s, with no underlying conditions, who will pick up this virus and possibly die from it.”
Dr Preston said the risk of hospitalisations and deaths will not go away once the most vulnerable people are jabbed.
“If the picture gets painted that the risk is gone, everyone likely to die is protected, there is no risk, that would be disingenuous.”
What did the Oxford vaccine study find?
Scientists at Oxford University have revealed Britain’s jabs rollout could have already begun to stop the virus spreading.
They found there was a 67 per cent drop in positive swabs among those already vaccinated.
It means those given the jab are not only less likely to get severe disease or die, but also have some protection against catching the virus and passing it on to others.
Although the data from clinical trials had shown the Oxford jab was effective at cutting the risk of severe Covid, it hasn’t become clear until now whether it also reduces transmission – a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Researchers published their latest findings in Preprints with The Lancet, on Tuesday.
The experts also revealed just one jab gives 76 per cent protection for three months.
They said it “supports the policy” of leaving a 12-week gap between the first and second dose adopted by the UK Government.
The study also showed the vaccines are actually more effective with longer intervals between doses.
A single dose of the vaccine is 76 per cent effective from 22 to up to 90 days post-vaccination.
This drops to 54.9 per cent when the second dose is given less than six weeks later.
But the efficacy soars to 82.4 per cent when each injection is spaced 12 or more weeks apart.
However, Dr Preston was of the opinion the vaccine cutting transmission will “get us closer, more quickly, to the point we can think about easing lockdown”.
He said: “I think we will still be seeing, even with new variants, the vaccines having an effect on transmission.
“We saw last year we probably came out of lockdown when the residual level of virus was still too high, and we imported the virus from summer holidays in the summer.
“So I think there are still a lot of complicated scenarios with return to free movement, particularly international travel.
“Certainly in terms of opening up our own hospitality and things closer to home, the news means we will be in a better position to say yes, we are coming out of lockdown, this spring. I am much more confident of that now.”
The Oxford study was conducted on a group of 12,408 people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca made jab, up until December 7.
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The new UK variant was in circulation at that time, but the researchers said their data was largely conducted before its existence was known.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology, University of Warwick, told The Sun: “[It’s] important that we now keep an eye on what happens in the real world now that we have more than 10 million people vaccinated – this will give us the best indication of whether the vaccines block transmission.
“But we have to be mindful of two things –firstly, the possible impact of virus variants on the effectiveness of current vaccines and on transmission, and secondly, the waning immune response in vaccinated individuals and how this will influence possible re-infection and transmission.”
He added that “curbing transmission will play a major role in easing us from this and any further lockdowns”.