What is the new variant and why is it a concern?
Scientists have detected a new Covid-19 variant called B.1.1.529 and are working to understand its potential implications. About 50 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
B.1.1.529 has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which are worrying because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists have said. Any new variant that is able to evade vaccines or spread faster than the now-dominant Delta variant might pose a significant threat as the world emerges from the pandemic.
Where exactly has it been found?
Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant has rapidly increased in the South African province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces.
In a regular daily update on confirmed cases nationally, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported 2,465 new Covid-19 infections, slightly less than double the previous day’s infections. The NICD did not attribute the latest resurgence to the new variant, although some leading local scientists suspect it is the cause.
South Africa has confirmed about 100 specimens as B.1.1.529 but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa. As many as 90% of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, scientists believe.
How does it compare to other variants?
Senior scientists on Thursday evening described B.1.1.529 as the worst variant they had seen since the start of the pandemic. It has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against Covid. That is about double the number associated with the Delta variant. Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.
The Delta variant was first detected in India in late 2020 but has since spread around the world, causing an increase in case rates and deaths. Other coronavirus variants include Alpha (which originated in Kent in the UK), Beta (formerly known as the South African variant) and Gamma (originally found in Brazil). It has been suggested, following a drop in cases in Japan, that variants can “mutate themselves out of existence”.
What new restrictions are being imposed?
South Africa will be placed under England’s red list travel restrictions from midday on Friday – affecting between 500 and 700 people who typically travel to the UK from South Africa each day via operators including British Airways and Virgin Airlines.
The ban will also cover flights from Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.
Recent arrivals from southern Africa will also be tracked down and offered tests in an effort to avoid the introduction of the new strain.
Israel also announced it will ban its citizens from travelling to southern Africa – covering the same six countries as well as Mozambique – and barring the entry of foreign travellers from the region.
England’s travel red list had remained empty since the final seven countries, including Peru, Colombia and Panama, were removed on 1 November. South Africa had been removed on 11 October, meaning vaccinated travellers were able to visit the country once again without having to quarantine in a hotel on their return.
What does the new variant mean for the UK and what might it mean for Christmas?
It is too early to tell. Scientists in the UK are working around the clock to understand more about the new variant. Because the variant has only recently emerged, scientists do not yet have evidence of its transmissibility or ability to evade vaccines. With a month to go until Christmas, there will be concerns that the variant – if it is allowed to spread – could trigger the need for further restrictions.
It could be a few weeks before scientists have complete information about the variant – and how serious a threat it may pose to the world.
Is there anything I can do to protect myself?
Yes. The advice remains to get vaccinated if you have not done so already. Britons who are aged 40 and above and received their second dose of their vaccine at least six months ago are currently eligible to have their booster now.