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Covid Q&A: Sir Patrick Vallance on vaccines, Brazilian variant and lockdown

The government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has answered some of ITV News' questions on Covid.

Watch Sir Patrick Vallance's full interview with ITV News political editor Robert Peston

As coronavirus deaths in the UK hit a grim daily record today, concerns have been mounting about the threat of the virus.

The government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has answered some of ITV News' questions on vaccines, new strains of the virus and how lockdown restrictions might be working.

Here's what he had to say to our political editor Robert Peston.

Peston: It looks as though the infections data is coming down a bit. Would you agree?

Sir Patrick: You’re right, that there are some signs that the infection rate may be levelling off or even coming down in some places as a result of the fact that people have been really good at sticking to the stay at home message. So the more we can do that, the more we’ll see hopefully, this coming down further. But there will be a lag of course before that translates into changes in hospitalisation and deaths.

Peston: We’ve seen this shocking death number today; have we just got to brace ourselves for several days of deaths at this kind of level?

Sir Patrick: Well the daily numbers jump around a bit but I think we are in a position now, when you look at the number of infections we’ve had over the past few weeks, this is likely to continue, so I don’t think they’re going to drop very quickly.

I’m afraid we’re in for a period of high death numbers that’s gonna carry on for some weeks. It’s not going to come down quickly, even if the measures that are in place now start to reduce the infection numbers. So we’re in for a pretty grim period I’m afraid.

Sir Patrick Vallance on ITV's Peston: "We're in for a pretty grim few weeks"

Peston: Infections as you say are levelling off and in some areas coming down. That would suggest to many people that the existing restrictions are the right ones. Do you agree?

Sir Patrick: They are making a difference and you can see that. So I think what we know now, which we didn’t know a few weeks ago, was would these sorts of restrictions be enough to bring this virus under control with the new variant?

And the answer is yes, it looks like it is, and things are at least flattening off in some places, not everywhere.

Some places are still going up but it does look as though those places that have been in the Tier 4 level restrictions the longest and now the lockdown with school closures - they’re levelling off or coming down. So the answer is.

Peston: We’ve seen today this Brazilian mutation being discussed. How much do we know about it?

Sir Patrick: Well we know that the Brazilian mutation has some of the features of some of the others. So what we’re seeing is that mutations are cropping up across the world, which are quite similar in terms of the changes.

So the Brazilian one, like the South African one, has a change of the genetic code position 484 and that changes a part of the protein.

Peston: Could it be more severe?

Sir Patrick: There’s no evidence at all with any of these variants that it makes the disease itself more severe. So the changes that we’re seeing with the variants are largely around increased transmission.

Brazil has the second highest number of coronavirus deaths Credit: AP/Leo Correa

No evidence yet for the UK version that it makes a difference in terms of how the immune system recognises it, and if you’ve been exposed to the old variant or you’ve had a vaccine, it looks like that’s gonna work just as well with this new variant for the UK one.

The South African one and Brazilian one, we don’t know for sure. There’s a bit more of a risk that this might make a change to the way the immune system recognises it but we don’t know. Those experiments are underway.

Peston: If a mutation turned up that we were pretty sure the existing vaccines don’t work on, what’s your plan for that moment?

Sir Patrick: I’ll take the messenger RNA vaccine as an example, is it’s actually relatively easy to make that change and so provided the regulatory authorities see that as a minor change, don’t see it as something that needs to go through a whole process again, that can be changed quickly. So that may be where this ends up, we don’t know.

Peston: If we were unlucky and a mutation turned up that was just too different from the existing strains, could you rapidly swing into action and get our current stock of vaccines changed?

Sir Patrick: Well you wouldn’t be changing the current stock of vaccine. The current stock of vaccine is the current stock of vaccine.

What you can do though, particularly in messenger RNA vaccines, but with others as well, is go back and change the vaccine at the start and then provided the regulators see that as a modification of an existing vaccine, you can quickly do clinical studies just to check if it’s all working in the immunology, without having to do big clinical trials and you can go straight into the clinic.

But that’s for the future, it’s not for now. I think people are pretty optimistic that this is an easy set of vaccines that you could change the design of them relatively quickly.

Anushka: Do we know if it can be caught twice yet?

Yes you can. It’s rare, but most people who’ve caught it once get protected aren’t at risk for catching it again over a short period. And actually it looks like it’s pretty protective; the evidence is that this really does stop you catching it a second time for at least many months and obviously we don’t know longer than that yet.

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