UK variant data promising, widespread vaccination still the key to reopening

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Medical experts say UK data suggesting vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe disease from COVID-19 variants are promising, but Australia’s tough restrictions must remain in place until most of the population has been immunised.

On Monday UK time, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed figures showing fully vaccinated people made up a small percentage of those hospitalised with the Delta variant of concern.

Pharmacists prepare the Pfizer vaccine at the Sydney Olympic Park mass vaccination clinic.Credit:AP

Just 1 per cent of people (126) infected with that variant in the UK were admitted to hospital, he told British MPs. Of those, some 83 had not been vaccinated at all, 28 had received only one shot and three had been fully vaccinated with two doses.

Professor Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and
Surveillance, said the data showed vaccines were providing good protection against new strains.

“Vaccines are continuing to hold up really quite well against the variants,” she said. “There is absolutely no sense that we would be needing to go back to square one with this.”

But with the world starting from a base of zero immunity to COVID-19, she said widespread vaccinations were vital before Australia could reduce non-medical restrictions including international border closures and social distancing.

“Vaccines are the pillar, they’re the central plank of responding to the pandemic,” she said. “The most important role that the vaccines can play first and foremost is to stop people from becoming seriously ill, becoming hospitalised, and dying.”

Dr Stuart Turville, an associate professor in immunovirology at the Kirby Institute, said the UK data on the impact of vaccination on the Delta variant was promising.

“The good news is, even though the variant is more transmissible compared to Alpha or Kappa, the vaccines still offer enough breadth of protection in terms of their immune response,” he said.

A Department of Health spokesperson also said the UK data was promising but more evidence was needed.

“The government is still considering the impact of COVID-19 vaccination on the transmission of disease,” the spokesperson said. “Until further evidence is available, the government will not be in a position to make a decision on whether an individual’s vaccination status will facilitate changes to public health measures such as quarantine.”

So far across Australia, more than 5.2 million doses of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have been administered.

Victoria currently has 92 active cases of COVID-19, with three people in hospital. All three are residents of the Arcare aged care facility. Two of those patients are aged care residents who have been fully vaccinated and are asymptomatic, and the third has had one dose of the vaccine. All are being kept in hospital for observation.

Since the start of March, NSW has recorded 394 overseas cases. Ninety per cent were completely unvaccinated. There have been 10 cases in fully vaccinated returned travellers, six in people who were partially vaccinated and another 14 whose first dose was received within the virus’ 14-day incubation cycle.

Professor Macartney said getting people vaccinated was not about avoiding variants altogether and a booster dose might be needed in time.

“If the virus continues to replicate, we have to face [variants],” she said. “But the first step we must take is to put down the first major wall of protection, which is getting the current vaccine.”

Dr Turville said “breakthrough infections”, where someone tested positive to COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated, were to be expected.

“Over time, we will find out how well the vaccine protects against transmission, too,” he said.

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