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Everest climbers could have spread Nepal Covid variant across the world


PHE’s weekly report found the variant had been spotted 43 times in Britain so far, up from the 29 last week 

A potentially vaccine resistant coronavirus variant that is being linked to Nepal could have been spread by climbers travelling home from Mount Everest, experts say.

Thirteen passengers on flights from Nepal to Japan were infected with the new mutant strain that combines mutations from the Indian and South African variants.

At least 43 cases have been spotted in the UK, with the strain first spotted on April 24 according to PHE’s surveillance data. Cases were also detected in the US, India and Portugal.

Its mutations mean scientists fear it could combine the worst traits of the Indian variant, which is more infectious, and the South African variant, which is more resistant to vaccines.

Scientists believe Nepal is the most likely origin of the strain, because of its similarities to the Indian variant and the detection of so many cases on flights from the Himalayan nation.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘There’s a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected and we just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine-defeating mutation, and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to June 21 and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock.’ 

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, a director at the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centre the Wellcome Sanger Institute, revealed today that the strain had been spotted in the Japanese travellers returning from Nepal.

Khatmandu has allowed thousands of climbers into the country for Everest season this spring and at least 100 cases were reported at base camp.

At the same time, Covid cases have been soaring across Nepal driven by the devastating second wave in neighbouring India.

And the detection of the variant in Portugal will raise further alarm bells for the UK, where hundreds of football fans have been ordered to quarantine today over cases linked to travel to the Champions League final. The country was today removed from Britain’s ‘green’ list, amid fears over the new variant.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said today Portugal had been removed from the ‘green’ list because its cases had doubled in a month, and there was a new variant which may be able to evade vaccines.

‘There’s a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected and we just don’t know the potential for that to be vaccine-defeating mutation and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to June 21 and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock,’ he said.

Pictured above is the Mount Everest base camp, Nepal, in April this year. There has been an outbreak at the camp and guides say at least 100 people have tested positive

Pictured above is the Mount Everest base camp, Nepal, in April this year. There has been an outbreak at the camp and guides say at least 100 people have tested positive

Nepal's Covid cases peaked at more than 9,000 a day on May 12, before dropping to 4,500 (307.6 cases per million people to 174.5 per million). The new variant believed to be linked to Nepal, is thought to have emerged over the last few months

Nepal’s Covid cases peaked at more than 9,000 a day on May 12, before dropping to 4,500 (307.6 cases per million people to 174.5 per million). The new variant believed to be linked to Nepal, is thought to have emerged over the last few months

Nepal's Covid death rate peaked at an average of 200 per day on May 19, before falling to 100 on June 2(6.89 deaths per million people to 3.48 per million)

Nepal’s Covid death rate peaked at an average of 200 per day on May 19, before falling to 100 on June 2(6.89 deaths per million people to 3.48 per million) 

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May. Pictured: Health workers carry Ramjee Kunwar, 65, a Covid patient from a helicopter to an ambulance after being airlifted from Pokhara to Kathmandu

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May. Pictured: Health workers carry Ramjee Kunwar, 65, a Covid patient from a helicopter to an ambulance after being airlifted from Pokhara to Kathmandu

The World Health Organization said it was 'not aware' of any new strain circulating in Nepal

The World Health Organization said it was ‘not aware’ of any new strain circulating in Nepal

The thirteen cases in Japan were spotted during hotel quarantine after the individuals returned from Nepal. Japanese have also spotted one further infection that was not linked to the group.

Only one case of the variant has been recorded in Nepal so far, but the country carries out very little surveillance for mutant strains.  

The UK has Nepal and India on its ‘red’ list, while the US, Japan and Portugal are on the ‘amber’ list.

The strain is a mutated version of the Indian variant currently dominant in the UK — B.1.617.2 — but it also carries the K417N mutation.

This is also on the South African variant — B.1.351 — and scientists say it can make jabs less effective. The new mutant strain has been named Delta+K417N.

Matt Hancock said yesterday Britain is preparing to buy millions of tweaked doses of the AstraZeneca jab that target the South African variant.

SAGE scientists think it makes jabs at least 30 per cent less effective against infections, but its impact on severe disease is not known.

What do we know about the ‘Nepal variant’? 

Real name: Delta+K417N

When and where was it discovered?

The mutant strain is thought to have first emerged in Nepal after the Indian variant mutated.

Scientists believe the country is the most likely origin of the virus because of its similarities to the Indian variant, and the detection of so many cases on flights from the Himalayan nation.

Only one case has been identified in Nepal, but the country carries out very little Covid surveillance. 

What mutations does it have?

The variant is a mutated version of the Indian variant but with a new mutation — called K417N — which has also been spotted on the South African variant. 

Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?

There are no studies at present showing whether it is more infectious or can evade vaccines compared to other variants.

But scientists fear it has combined the worst features of the the Indian and South African variants, making it more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines. 

Some experts have warned, however, that Britain must stop ‘scampering down rabbit holes’ every time a new variant is detected. 

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said: ‘We need to change our attitude to variants and not panic every time a new variant is identified.

‘Virus variants are generated by every one who is infected and this will continue as more people are infected around the world.’

How deadly is it?

It is not clear whether the mutant strain is more deadly, but it is being watched closely by scientists.

Studies suggest the Indian variant is not more deadly than the original virus.

How many cases have been detected in the UK?

Forty-three cases have been identified in the country, PHE’s surveillance report from last week shows. The number is now thought to be higher.

The variant had arrived on British soil by April 24, sequencing data suggests. 

Ministers sparked surge testing in postcode areas where the strain was detected, to root out every last case. 

Public Health England will likely announce its arrival in the UK later today when it updates its weekly variant report. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, told MailOnline it was ‘entirely possible’ the mutant strain was being spread by travellers. 

‘Anywhere travellers go is a likely source of transmission across the world,’ he said. ‘It seems to me that the Himalayan region is for Nepal is a tourism hotspot.’ 

Covid outbreaks have been reported at the base camp for Mount Everest — the highest mountain in the world — with at least 100 climbers and guides testing positive last month. 

Visitors told the Telegraph there were almost daily evacuations from the camp of people who had caught the virus. 

And Austrian Lukas Furtenbach — who takes tour groups to the mountain  — said he could hear people coughing in their tents, and saw others who looked unwell.

The outbreak at the mountain coincided with Nepal’s second wave of the pandemic, which struck in May and was driven by the Indian variant.

Nepal gave out about 300 licences to climb the mountain this year, with visitors told to self-isolate for three days and take a Covid test before arriving at base camp.

But tour operators say enforcement of the rules has been lax, and only around half of the 43 groups visiting the mountain were tested for the virus.

There have been no confirmed cases of the new variant linked to Mount Everest, but there is little Covid surveillance in Nepal. Britain’s public health authorities do not normally detail which country a traveller infected with Covid has arrived from.

Mount Everest was so popular in 2019 that tourists had to queue along the final stretch in order to reach the peak. Tourism to the mountain is a major source of revenue for local authorities. 

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, a director at the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centre the Wellcome Sanger Institute, revealed today that the strain had been spotted in Japanese travellers returning from Nepal.

‘There have been 91 sequences observed of the (new variant), with an additional mutation: K417N,’ he said.

‘This mutation is present in B.1.351 / Beta, and is believed to be part of why that variant is less well neutralised by vaccines.  

‘Because of this possibility, and because Delta appears more transmissible than Beta, scientists are monitoring it carefully.

‘This Delta+K417N has been seen in numerous countries, including the UK, Portugal, the USA, and India. 

‘It has also been observed once in Nepal (which does very little sequencing), and 14 times in Japan, of which 13 are samples from airport quarantine from travellers from Nepal.’

A member of the Government’s SAGE committee said last night officials should not be overly concerned. He added: ‘There are thousands of variants. This is a virus that is changing all the time.’

And Tory peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, chairman of the Airport Operators’ Association, said: ‘How many more variants have we got to be worried about? What matters is data and the success of our vaccination programme.’

The Indian variant appears to be prone to mutating and there are already three versions of it – Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2) and Kappa (B.1.617.1).

The B.1.617.2 variant is currently dominant in the UK – accounting for roughly three in four cases – and appears to be the most transmissible.

Vaccines are highly effective against it, PHE’s analysis has shown, with a similar efficacy against symptomatic illness as the Kent strain following two doses.

GRANT SHAPPS STRIPS PORTUGAL OFF THE UK’S ‘GREEN LIST’ 

Holidaymakers suffered a hammer blow today as Portugal was removed from the UK’s green list with Grant Shapps citing fears over the spread of the Nepal variant.

In a brutal overhaul, the only major tourist destination in the lowest bracket is being axed from 4am Tuesday – with sources suggesting the new strain identified in the country was a significant factor in the decision.

No countries are being added to the ‘green list’, dashing hopes that places such as Malta, Jamaica and Grenada could be added to the roster.

And more countries are being put on the ‘red list’ that means returning travellers must go into quarantine hotels. They are Egypt, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Bahrain, Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago and Afghanistan.

Grant Shapps revealed Portugal was to be removed from the 'green' list

Grant Shapps revealed Portugal was to be removed from the ‘green’ list

Transport Secretary Mr Shapps said there had been a rise in test positivity in Portugal, and also pointed to the danger that the coronavirus variant linked to Nepal could pose a fresh threat to the escape from lockdown.

‘I want to be straight with people, it’s actually a difficult decision to make, but in the end we’ve seen two things really which caused concern,’ he said.

‘One is the positivity rate has nearly doubled since the last review in Portugal and the other is there’s a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected and we just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine-defeating mutation, and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to June 21 and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock.’

At least 20 cases of the strain, which combines mutations from the Indian and South African versions, have been spotted in the UK. And a case has been identified in Portugal – which does far less genomic screening than Britain.

The decision sparked fury from the travel industry, while Portuguese MP for the Algarve Cristóvão Norte branded it ‘unfair’ and ‘overly cautious’.

Meanwhile, Labour has renewed demands for the ‘amber list’ to be scrapped to prevent mutant strains from being imported.

And in another setback for travellers the EU has again delayed a decision on whether the UK will be added to its ‘white list’ of safe countries from which leisure travel is welcome.

 

Experts have called for calm, saying new variants emerging is part of the evolution of viruses. 

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, called for calm over new variants.

He told MailOnline: ‘We need to change our attitude to variants and not panic every time a new variant is identified.

‘Virus variants are generated by every one who is infected and this will continue as more people are infected around the world. 

‘The more the virus replicates in more people the greater the likelihood that variants will be generated that could be more infectious and also more resistant to current vaccines. 

‘Vaccination significantly reduces the risk of infection and will prevent new variants from being generated.’ 

Dr Clarke echoed those comments. He told this website: ‘Over the next few years we’re going to keep getting variants cropping up over the next few years and people are going to worry about their sensitivity to vaccines.

‘But the truth is the weakening of vaccines will be incremental and no one single variant will blow them out of the water. So I think we’re probably being a bit over-cautious.’

Last night, even government advisers said the UK could not keep panicking every time a new variant emerges.

Professor Sir John Bell said ministers should avoid ‘scampering down a rabbit hole’ when new strains are detected, and instead focus on hospitalisations, serious disease and deaths.

The WHO said in a Twitter post this morning it ‘is not aware of any new variant of SARS-CoV-2 being detected in Nepal’.

‘The three confirmed variants in circulation are: Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2) and Kappa (B.1.617.1). The predominant variant currently in circulation in Nepal is Delta (B.1.617.2).’ 

The post was shared by Dr Rajesh Pandav, the WHO’s representative for Nepal.

Nepal’s health minister Mr Tripathi told CNN that media reports about the new Covid variant were ‘completely false’. 

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. 

Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May.

It is thought that the Indian variant is behind the outbreak there and to what extent the new strain has played remains unknown. 

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month.

Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May.

Nepal’s second wave has been driven by the spread of the B.1.167 variant from neighbouring India. But last night scientists warned that another variant of Covid-19 has since been identified.

Concern among ministers about the strain is one of the main reasons for not putting more holiday destinations on today’s updated green list. They are also concerned about the slower pace of the vaccine rollout across Europe. Even though cases are falling in many European countries, they are far behind Britain’s vaccine drive.

A lack of genome sequencing for detecting new variants in some European countries, a key criteria for making the green list, is also a concern. After meeting the UK’s ambassador to Spain yesterday, Spanish hospitality official Antonio Mayor said: ‘The impression I was left with was that there was a good chance the Balearic Islands could be included on the next green list, but not necessarily the Canary Islands.

‘What was made clear at the meeting is that mainland Spain is not going to be put on the next green list that’s announced.

‘We hope it will be before but we’re looking now at July 20 as the sort of date when things might change. If that does happen the tour operators are going to need at least a fortnight to normalise operations which takes us into the start of August.’ 

Last night, MPs and industry expressed alarm at the prospect of foreign summer holidays slipping away. Tory MP Henry Smith, chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation group of MPs, and whose constituency includes Gatwick, said: ‘After a devastating year for our aviation, travel and tourism industries, this will come as a hammer blow to an industry that is close to breaking point.

‘Far from benefiting from a vaccine dividend, this reinforces that our overly cautious approach to international travel is a restart in name only.

‘We must ensure that we avoid a summer shutdown that will cause irreversible damage to businesses and communities who rely on international travel.’

After today, the green list – which currently contains 12 countries – will not be reviewed until the week running up to June 28. If there is not a significant expansion then, it will be July 19 or 20 before there is another chance for more destinations to make it on to the list.



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