Although vaccines can now be tweaked in a matter of weeks to fight variants it would take months to get jabs into arms
Scientists warn the new Omicron Covid variant will outrun any vaccine developed to combat it as the virus today hit Britain.
Covid test genome sequencing identified two Omicron victims in Nottingham and Chelmsford.
The two cases are linked and involve travel to South Africa.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing.”
And Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty added: “We will continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.”
Although vaccines can now be tweaked in a matter of weeks to fight variants it would take months to get jabs into arms.
Immunologist Professor Danny Altmann of Imperial College London said: “Vaccine manufacturers are up and ready to make new variant vaccines.
“But even with a fast turnaround we can never win the race.”
Corona researcher Dr Viola Priesemann of Germany’s Max Planck Institute added: “The development of vaccines will be slower than the variant which is moving very quickly.”
It will take weeks to establish if Omicron can get round existing vaccines and whether new ones will be needed.
But Professor Sir Andrew Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine
Group told Radio 4 yesterday: “The processes of developing a new vaccine are increasingly well oiled.
“So if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.”
The new strain known as B.1.1.529 was first identified in Botswana on Tuesday and travel from six southern African countries is now banned.
Another four – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.- were also put on the red list yesterday.
Professor Susan Michie of Independent SAGE said: “That can buy us some time. But the variant is likely to be in very many countries already and people will be coming into Britain from those countries.”
And Professor Christina Pagel of University College London said: “We could well get blown up by this new variant.”
While scientists grapple with assessing dangers from Omicron the Delta variant is rampaging across Europe with Austria, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland suffering higher infection rates than the UK.
In England hospitalisations and deaths are down from a peak last month but infections are only falling for the over 60s with the fastest growth in children aged between five to nine.
The Omicron virus has a worrying 50 mutations, 30 of them in the virus’s spikes – the grappling hooks which Covid uses to attach to human cells.
It is these changes which most worry scientists because they may allow the variant to evade existing vaccines.
Carol Popplestone of the Royal College of Nursing said: “The Government must reintroduce compulsory face coverings immediately.”
And the Lib Dems called on Boris Johnson to reverse £30m aid cuts to Southern Africa and launch an emergency Covid support fund to help tackle the crisis.
Foreign Affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said: “We cannot simply pull up the drawbridge and hope this problem goes away.
“Southern Africa needs an emergency package of support to help contain this outbreak, track the new variant and vaccinate vulnerable populations.”
Scientists also called on UK vaccine makers to allow jabs to be made available to afflicted countries.
Professor Stephen Reicher of St Andrews University said: “There is a massive crisis across Africa because countries are unable to manufacture their own vaccines.
“Britain must stop blocking patent waivers so vaccines can be made across the world.”