However, Dr Ivan Muscat also said that the new variant was detectable and would be covered by the vaccine currently being deployed.
He also suggested that the new ‘more transmissible’ strain of the virus could be behind the rapid rise in Covid cases witnessed in the past month.
And he warned that Jersey needed to tread carefully into 2021 and that further restrictions might need to be introduced to help ‘rein in’ the virus.
‘We know that the usual variant that was common in the UK, which particularly spread through Europe and the UK in the late summer, has now been joined by a more transmissible variant – referred to as the new variant – which has a 70% increased transmissibility compared with the previous dominant variant,’ Dr Muscat said. ‘That is rapidly accelerating in terms of dominance in the UK and given our connectivity with the UK over the last few months, it is entirely likely that this new strain has already arrived in Jersey.
‘It could very well be one of the reasons – and possibly the main reason – for the increase in numbers that we have seen in the last few weeks.’
He explained that the vaccine being used in the Island would still work against the new strain, despite the mutations of the virus’s ‘spike protein’.
‘Although the vaccine is designed to produce immunity against the spike protein, it produces an immune response to a large number of different bits of the spike protein. This new variant is just a limited change in the spike protein, so there are still lots of other bits of the spike protein that are the same as they were yesterday and the day before. Therefore, the vaccine will still produce immunity to those long-lasting “older bits”, which have not changed.’
Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, which produces the vaccine currently being used, has said he is confident it works against the new Covid-19 variant but that further studies were needed to be certain.
Dr Muscat added: ‘The tests that we have will also pick up the new variant. It isn’t bypassing the tests that we have in Jersey, or, as far as I know, the tests that others are using. Of course if it did, then it wouldn’t have been detected.’
He added that there was ‘no evidence’ that the new variant caused a more severe version of the virus in those who caught it.
‘It it more transmissible, but it does not cause more severe disease – I think that’s an important point to help reassure people,’ he said.
Samples are currently being sent to the UK to confirm whether the new strain is present in the Island.
Meanwhile, it is anticipated that the Oxford vaccine – which is currently awaiting authorisation – could be deployed in Jersey at the start of next year.
‘We are told that in addition to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Oxford vaccine is now going to be made available,’ said Dr Muscat. ‘We believe that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will authorise the use of the Oxford vaccine later on this month, and we anticipate receiving the Oxford vaccine to deploy it in January. So we do need to keep our population as healthy as possible to be able to deliver the vaccine, because you can’t vaccinate people who are unwell – or you should try to avoid it as much as possible.
‘Of course Covid also affects staff, so if staff are unwell because of Covid, then they won’t be around to look after other unwell people and there will be fewer staff able to vaccinate. So we need to try to protect our system as a whole in order to give the vaccine – that is now becoming increasingly available – time to be deployed and rolled out, to protect the general population.’