On Saturday, while millions of households were distracted by Britain’s ‘nil points’ Eurovision performance, a leaked Public Health England report found its way to the Financial Times.
The headline findings of the report concluded that two jabs of BioNTech/Pfizer or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines respectively provide 88 and 60 percent protection against the so-called Indian variant of COVID-19 (B.1.617.2).
This was, apparently, some good news at last. Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the new evidence as “groundbreaking”, stating that: “we can now be confident that over 20m people — more than one in three — have significant protection against this new variant”.
Whilst Boris will use these positive headlines to press ahead with full reopening to get profits flowing again, reading a little closer, the figures don’t paint such a rosy picture. In fact, they’re extremely concerning.
The devil is in the details
The new data from PHE was expected last Thursday in a public press release. Instead, the report was leaked to the Financial Times, without explanation, three days later – possibly with the hope that it would be ignored or downplayed – and with key information omitted.
Many experts point out that the PHE report in fact shows B.1.617.2 overtaking all other strains at an alarming rate, growing twice as fast as the so-called Kent variant.
This means it is probably dominant in many parts of England. It also seems to be around 50 percent more likely to infect contacts.
Additionally, the data suggests a level of efficacy of around 33 percent in protecting against the so-called ‘Indian variant’ for both vaccines after a single dose. This was substantially lower than the 55 percent efficacy in preventing symptomatic disease with the Kent variant.
-So ~17% drop post-1st dose & 6% post-2nd dose for sympomatic disease (similar for both vaccines)— Deepti Gurdasani (@dgurdasani1) May 23, 2021
- no data on efficacy for severe disease
-clear evidence of escape- as B.1.617.2 overrepresented among vaccinees (post 1 or 2 doses)
- no data by age grouphttps://t.co/ZGXIEUgD5C
This might suggest a degree of newly developed vaccine resistance. This seems to be confirmed by data in the report suggesting that the Indian variant is more prevalent among those who have had a vaccine dose than among the unvaccinated.
There is no further information concerning efficacy for preventing severe disease, nor a breakdown by age group.
Worryingly, the PHE report concludes there is a “high risk” from B.1.617.2 both in terms of transmissibility and risk of escape (i.e. evading the immunity provided by vaccinations).
The data is still limited. There is much we don’t know for sure. But with only 40 percent of adults and no children vaccinated, there is certainly a danger of another devastating wave of infections hitting Britain, resulting in hospitalisations and deaths comparable to winter 2020 and the new year. This scenario should be clearly explained and prepared for.
In the short term, this would mean combining surge vaccinations with a slowdown to re-opening until the spread of the variant can be contained, and a clearer picture of vaccine efficacy obtained. However, Johnson shows little appetite for changing course.
Swept under the rug
On top of all this, according to documents obtained by the Observer, the government directly intervened to pressure PHE not to publish data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools.
Comparing a pre-print version with the final iteration of a previous report, published 13 May, a page on this subject has been removed. This was days before the government went ahead with plans to remove face coverings in English schools.
Data on the spread in schools has still not been officially published, but the Observer reports that 164 cases of the new variant were linked to schools up to 12 May, or 7.8 percent of a total of 2,111 cases.
Since then, the number of known cases in the country has increased to 3,424, a rise of 62 percent.
Scientists are alarmed at this massaging of the data. For instance, Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, said:
“It feels like bad news that we’re not being told.
“There is a narrative that schools are safe but the data clearly shows this variant can and does spread in schools. Two weeks ago, the Singaporean health minister closed schools because of the risk of greater spread in children of this variant.
“Parents, teachers and children just need this information in order to take steps to keep themselves and their communities safe. The new variant is the biggest threat to the roadmap according to Sage, but the data is just not coming out in a transparent and timely manner.”
Indeed, it is believed the rapid spread of the Indian variant in Bolton and Blackburn was due to schoolchildren passing it on to teachers and parents.
It is increasingly apparent that the government is interfering with supposedly ‘independent’ public health agencies, stage-managing the release of data, and ensuring hopeful headlines to prepare for the return to business as usual.
No more Tory spin! Fight COVID-19 with class struggle!
This is absolutely scandalous. Clearly, millions of people are desperate for a return to normality, having spent the best part of two years with the shadow of COVID-19 hanging over our heads. But the fact is, we’re not out of the woods yet. Far from it.
The callous incompetence of the Tories is directly responsible for the length and depth of this disaster, having bungled their approach to the pandemic at every turn.
And it seems they are remaining true to form: spinning data about a dangerous new variant as a “positive” vindication of their vaccination campaign, rather than a warning that we run the risk of being set back to square one.
The hapless, supplicant leadership of the Labour Party is refusing to present any discernible opposition. Therefore, should another catastrophe transpire, it will be down to the independent action of workers and youth in the next period to force this rotten government to take serious measures.
First and foremost, there can be no return to ‘normality’ before it is safe to reopen. Containment measures should be combined with surge vaccinations and testing. We demand that lives be placed before profits.
If we face another wave, adequate support must be provided for workers if further lockdowns become necessary.
The Tories will say that we cannot afford another lockdown because of the economic damage it would do. But in the course of the pandemic, in 2020 alone, the number of billionaires in Britain increased by one-fifth. The bosses have profited enormously on the back of the pandemic and must be made to pay the cost of escaping from it.
Furthermore, all data on new variants must be made public and transparent so that workers can take the necessary steps to protect themselves. We must put an end to Tory spin. We demand the truth.
Even if the Tories’ prayers are answered, and the current vaccines do provide sufficient protection to keep this variant at bay, this pandemic will never truly end until it is dealt with everywhere.
Vaccination efforts must be expedited throughout the world. Furthermore, we need the resources and know-how to develop updated vaccines and boosters to deal with new variants in the longer term. We must put an end to vaccine nationalism and expropriate the big pharma bosses.
The capitalists and their representatives have failed to avert or end the pandemic. The working class and youth in Britain and beyond must fight to wrest control away from these parasites and democratically run society for the good of all.