Britain alerted over a new COVID-19 variant spreading in South Africa

  • Vaccines may be less effective against new variants
  • Variant has twice as many mutations than Delta
  • Britain bans flights from six African countries
  • Spike protein of B.1.1.529 dramatically different

LONDON, November 25 (Reuters) – Britain said on Thursday it was concerned about a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa that could make vaccines less effective and jeopardize efforts to fight the pandemic.

The UK Health Safety Agency said the variant, called B.1.1.529, has a peak protein that was dramatically different from that of the original coronavirus on which COVID-19 vaccines are based.

“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine sensitivity,” said UKHSA CEO Jenny Harries.

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The variant was first identified earlier this week, but the UK rushed to impose travel restrictions on South Africa and five neighboring countries, acting much faster than with the currently dominant Delta variant.

“What we do know is that there are a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” Health Minister Sajid Javid told television stations.

“And it suggests that it may well be more transmissible, and the current vaccines we have may well be less effective.”

The UK announced that it is temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 1 p.m. 1200 GMT on Friday, and that returning British travelers from these destinations should be quarantined.

A sign of social distance is seen in the midst of the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Leicester, UK, 27 May 2021. REUTERS / Andrew Boyers

Javid said more data on the variant was needed, but travel restrictions were needed as a precaution.

Researchers said laboratory tests were needed to assess the likelihood that the mutations would result in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy.

Earlier Thursday d. South African scientists said they had discovered the new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said no cases of it had been detected in the UK.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said B.1.1.529 had an “unprecedented” number of mutations in the spike protein and was the driving force behind a recent rapid rise in the number of cases in South Africa.

“The government’s efforts to restrict travel with South Africa are therefore cautious,” he said.

“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 may be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk of it posing.”

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Reporting by Alistair Smout and William Schomberg; Edited by Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Simao

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