One-third of people in England are estimated to have antibodies against Covid-19, new figures show, while case rates are at their lowest level in almost six months – though the public has been warned to remain “vigilant as ever”.
It comes as Britain’s death toll passed 125,000 on Thursday, another tragic milestone for a country that has the highest number of coronavirus fatalities in Europe. Some 6,753 new cases were reported on Thursday.
Despite this, the latest surveillance report from Public Health England (PHE) showed that infection rates were continuing to fall across all age groups and regions in the country.
The hospital admission rate for Covid-19 in England had also dropped, with 5.95 new patients per 100,000 people recorded between 1 and 7 March, down from 8.3 in the previous week.
Separately, a total of 45,229 people in England tested positive in the week to 3 March, according to new test and trace data. This represented a 34 per cent decrease on the previous figures and was the lowest number since the week ending 23 September.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (Cog-UK), said the situation in Britain now appeared to be “quite contained”, but insisted that “we have to be vigilant as ever” and “keep watching every day and every week to make sure” the virus is kept under control.
Speaking at a webinar as part of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Covid-19 series, she added that it was unlikely the virus would evolve to become resistant to the current generation of vaccines.
“The vaccine manufacturers have been absolutely fantastic, and very innovative in keeping ahead of the curve,” she said. “I would anticipate that vaccines will stay ahead of where they need to, but we can’t predict the future.”
More than 23 million in the UK have now received a first vaccine dose, including a majority of care home residents, people aged 70 and over, and healthcare workers.
Younger age groups are also being invited to receive a jab, as officials continue to race through the priority list. NHS figures suggest that about one in five people aged 16 to 59 in England are likely to have had their first dose.
The success of the UK’s rollout is helping to ramp up antibody levels in the population across the four nations.
For England, about 33 per cent of people have antibodies in their blood from either infection or vaccination, according to PHE. This rate has more than doubled in the three months since the beginning of the inoculation programme.
Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, a consultant epidemiologist at PHE, said analysis of blood samples taken from the population indicated that 60 per cent of people aged 70 to 84 were antibody-positive.
“The vaccine is having a big impact on the number of people that have antibodies in the age groups that have been vaccinated, suggesting there is a good immune response to Covid-19 vaccines in the population,” she said. “This further supports the decision to prioritise the first dose.”
Professor Wei Shen Lim, the JCVI Covid-19 chair, said: “People experiencing homelessness are likely to have health conditions that put them at higher risk of death from Covid-19.
“This advice will help us to protect more people who are at greater risk, ensuring that fewer people become seriously ill or die from the virus.”
Although Britain is making encouraging progress with its jabs, concern remains around the threat posed by new and emerging coronavirus variants, some of which are thought to be partially resistant to the Covid-19 vaccines.
PHE announced on Thursday that a new variant had been identified in two people who recently returned to Britain from Antigua.
Officials said the variant was placed under investigation on 4 March after two cases were found in southeast England.
“The variant contains the spike mutations E484K and N501Y, both usually associated with variants of concern (VOC), however it does not feature specific deletions that would lead to a designation as a VOC,” PHE said in a statement.
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While scientists say that mutations in viruses are inevitable, the coronavirus variants first identified in Kent, South Africa and Brazil carry worrisome changes that give the virus certain advantages.
The E484K mutation of the spike protein has been seen in South African and Brazilian variants, and has occurred spontaneously in the UK variant, and is associated with lower vaccine efficacy. The N501Y mutation is linked to heightened transmissibility.
In spite of the genetic changes, scientists are optimistic the vaccines will still provide high levels of protection against the different variants. Nonetheless, manufacturers have already begun modifying their jabs to take into account the new spike protein mutations.
Similar reports were made in Norway, while Italy, Austria, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Lithuania have suspended the use of a million-dose batch that was sent to 17 countries across Europe.
The MHRA said there was no evidence to suggest the vaccine caused blood clot problems, which “can occur naturally and are not uncommon”, and said people should still get their Covid-19 vaccine when asked to do so.
“Reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population,” said Dr Phil Bryan, MHRA vaccines safety lead.
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