A new Covid variant first identified in Botswana may be “the worst variant we have seen so far”, and six African countries have now been added to the UK’s red list for travel.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the variant “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.
Scientists are concerned as this variant, named B.1.1529, has a high number of mutations which could potentially make it tricker for the immune system to attack.
From 12pm on Friday, flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended until 4am on Sunday. From Sunday, those arriving arriving in the UK will have to quarantine for 10 days in hotels.
Though the new variant may be more transmissible it can be detected with a normal PCR test.
The variant is being closely monitored with research ongoing, but here’s what we know about it so far.
Where has the variant been detected?
B.1.1529 was first found in Botswana on November 11. Three days after that, cases were found in South Africa and another case was identified in Hong Kong, in a 36-year old man who flew from South Africa. So far there aren’t any cases identified in the UK.
In total, 59 confirmed cases have been identified as of Friday November 26.
How serious is this?
B.1.1.529 was added to the World Health Organisation’s list of variants under monitoring on Wednesday November 24. This label is given to variants with genetic changes that are suspected to affect virus characteristics, with some indication that it may pose a future risk.
However, officials do not yet have enough evidence to call it a “variant of concern”. This title is given to variants when there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, reduction in neutralisation by antibodies (either generated during previous infection or vaccination), reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.
How is the variant different?
The variant has more than 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology told The Guardian work in his lab found that two of the 32 mutations on B.1.1.529 increased infectivity and reduced “antibody recognition” – this means the mutations may make it harder for immune cells to respond. However, researchers are still analysing the infectiousness of this strain overall.
“It does certainly look a significant concern based on the mutations present,” he said. “However, a key property of the virus that is unknown is its infectiousness, as that is what appears to have primarily driven the Delta variant. Immune escape is only part of the picture of what may happen.”
Proffesor Francois Balloux, the director of the UCL Genetics Institute, agreed that it is difficult to predict how transmissible the variant may be at this stage. However, she shed some light on the possible origins of the mutation.
“Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient,” she said in a statement.
Should we be worried?
Professor Gupta tweeted to say: “This one is worrying and I’ve not said that since Delta. Please get vaccinated and boosted and mask up in public as the mutations in this virus likely result in high level escape from neutralising antibodies.”
Greg Dore, an infectious disease physician at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia added: “B.1.1.529 variant has mutations associated with reduced vaccine effectiveness. But, if it’s a ‘less fit’ virus and has reduced transmission potential then not huge problem. Time to monitor, not time to panic.”
What is being done to control the variant?
Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The variant could eventually be given the moniker “Nu” – with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet.
According to PA, UK officials were said to be “very worried” after they examined details on the variant on the international database – and have taken significant steps just three days after the details were uploaded.
The variant is a “dramatic change” from anything seen previously by UK scientists. It has mutations which have been observed in other variants, but also ones that scientists have not yet seen.