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UK virus strain detected in more than 60 nations

But Pfizer vaccine appears effective against it; lab tests and studies on South African variant pending

GENEVA The British coronavirus strain has been detected in more than 60 countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.

With the global death toll now well past two million, and new variants of the virus causing deep concern, countries across the world are grappling with how to slow infections until vaccines become widely available.

The South African strain, which like the British one is believed to be more infectious, has now been reported in 23 countries and territories, WHO also announced.

It said the number of deaths climbed to a record high of 93,000 over the previous seven days, with 4.7 million cases reported over the same period.

The arrival of mass vaccination campaigns in the US and Europe had brought hope that the end of the pandemic was in sight; the European Union said Tuesday it was aiming to inoculate 70 per cent of its adult population before the end of August.

But many EU countries - and other nations including India and Russia - have struggled to get their inoculation programmes off the ground.

But there is some good news.

The Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is likely to protect against the British variant, according to results of further lab tests released yesterday.

The encouraging results from an analysis of blood of participants in trials are based on a more extensive analysis than those released by the US drugmaker last week.

Last week, Pfizer said a similar laboratory study showed the vaccine was effective against one key mutation, called N501Y, found in two highly transmissible new variants spreading in Britain and South Africa.

The latest study, posted on bioRxiv.org but not yet peer reviewed, was conducted on a synthetic virus with 10 mutations that are characteristic of the variant known as B117 identified in Britain.

Among the 11 authors of the study are Dr Ugur Sahin and Dr Oezlem Tuereci, co-founders of BioNTech. Dr Sahin is chief executive and his wife, Dr Tuereci, is chief medical officer.

Experts said the findings were reassuring and not surprising, and results from similar studies on the South African variant would be keenly watched.

"This makes it very unlikely that the UK variant will escape from the protection provided by the vaccine," said specialist in virus science Jonathan Stoye from Britain's Francis Crick Institute.

"It will be interesting to carry out the same experiments with the South African variant."

MORE DETAILED ANALYSIS

BioNTech has said it plans to publish a more detailed analysis of the likely effect of its vaccine on the South African variant within a few days.

AstraZeneca, Moderna and CureVac are also testing whether their respective shots will protect against the fast-spreading variants. They have not released the results of those tests.

Meanwhile, some British hospitals look like war zones with doctors struggling to cope with an influx of patients, the government's top scientific adviser said, as the death toll rose by a record 1,610 people on Tuesday.

Britain's total death toll is now 91,470 - Europe's worst figure and the world's fifth worst after the US, Brazil, India and Mexico. - REUTERS, AFP

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