If you wanted to teach the coronavirus how to evade vaccine-induced immunity, you would do what the United Kingdom is about to, Marc Daalder writes

Recent months have seen a surge of support in the scientific community for the theory that the coronavirus pandemic is a result of gain-of-function experiments in a Wuhan virus lab, although the issue is still hotly contested and far from settled.

What most experts can agree on is that the United Kingdom is about to embark on a country-wide experiment in gain-of-function research. By abolishing all public health restrictions with just half of the population fully vaccinated, the UK could produce new variants that evade vaccine-induced immunity.

“If you are going to train a virus to escape vaccine-induced immunity, you would do exactly what they’re doing,” Jemma Geoghegan, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Otago, told Newsroom.

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“You’re basically providing a training ground for the virus to overcome those selection pressures. You’re allowing the virus to continue to spread. With this moderately immune population and with the Delta variant that has an R0 that’s estimated to be probably five or six, you need a threshold to be much, much, much higher than they currently have.”

If the United Kingdom had reached that threshold, then removing restrictions wouldn’t pose an issue because the virus would struggle to spread through a heavily vaccinated population. Now, however, it will be able to spread rapidly through the unvaccinated population and then infect many vaccinated people as well. And the more the virus spreads and reproduces, the more it mutates.

In particular, when it infects vaccinated people, the random mutations which enable it to pierce that vaccine-induced immunity are more likely to stick. It’s simply survival of the fittest.

“Delta is not going to be the last variant. The semi-weak selection pressure for a virus, in this big population, it’s not good for the future of the vaccine. I’m sure that there is going to be some evolution of some sort of resistance,” Geoghegan said.

That is, while vaccines remain highly effective at reducing severe disease, hospitalisations and deaths from existing variants of the virus, new variants could threaten that. And the United Kingdom’s opening up is more likely to produce those types of variants.

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said: “The question is, how much worse is Delta going to get?

“They are running a really quite awful experiment.”

This doesn’t just endanger New Zealand over the next few months, but in fact threatens to unroll the progress of the vaccine rollout in every country. If new variants reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, that extends the needed threshold for population immunity. And recent modelling from Te Pūnaha Matatini found that, for New Zealand at least, a full 97 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated if vaccine efficacy fell to 70 percent and the dominant global variant was highly transmissible.

That would make reaching immunity through vaccination alone effectively impossible. It would necessitate ongoing, low-level public health restrictions for an extended period of time, if not indefinitely.

For those countries which are not able to maintain those measures or which have failed to exclude Covid-19 to date, the picture would be even more grim.

As British commentator Umair Haque wrote about the UK’s own fate: “A tiny portrait of the future of Britain’s public health goes like this. Restrictions lifted, just as a new wave surges exponentially. Bang — the Delta wave explodes. New variants breed like wildfire. Waves of new variants surge in a Pandemic Storm, if you like — Delta, Lambda, whatever’s next — and recombine into even deadlier ones.

“The world shuts its doors. Covid does become a new flu in Britain, an endemic, seasonal illness, only with hundreds of times the mortality and hospitalisation rates of the flu, bringing society to its knees, over and over again. Every winter is a deadly one. Every summer is only the eye of a widening gyre.”

This may not be guaranteed, but it isn’t idle speculation either.

Wiles said: “It’s extraordinary. I guess we’re going to see, in a few weeks’ time, are they really not going to do anything to stop people getting sick?

“What does that mean for the health system? Yes, lots of people have been vaccinated so you might not see the level of death that we would have without the vaccination. But the numbers, the numbers are huge. Hospitals are not an infinite resource. Are they just going to let them get overwhelmed then?

“They’re not really even thinking about the children who are vulnerable. Children with underlying health conditions, or those people who have been vaccinated and it’s been safe for them but the vaccine won’t have been that effective. People with blood cancers. It’s an astonishing abdication of responsibility.”

That’s why the Government’s official position on the issue – that it isn’t New Zealand’s place to comment on other countries’ responses – is insufficient. The Government has shown no interest in advising the United Kingdom against this course of action, even though its repercussions will extend well beyond the borders of Britain.

Few others in politics have been bold on this issue either.

“I think the UK’s approach is dangerous to both the UK and the world. It will inevitably lead to more dangerous variants of the virus circulating, and it could undermine all the good efforts that have gone into the vaccination programme,” Green Party Covid-19 spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said. She stopped short of encouraging the Government to bring this up with the Brits.

Even Dr Ashley Bloomfield, when asked about the potential for the UK’s strategy to foster new virus variants, said only that if the situation there worsened enough, we could treat it as a high-risk country for border purposes. What happens when the variants there spread around the rest of the world and become the dominant global strain of the virus? Will we shut the borders to everyone, forever?

There are no easy choices or right options here – other than for the UK to abandon its foolhardy opening up.

Boris Johnson is reported to have said, before belatedly initiating a second national lockdown in Britain, “let the bodies pile high in their thousands”.

It’s bad enough that he’s returned to this aim for Britons, but unconscionable that he intends to force it upon the rest of the world as well.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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