United Kingdom

South Africa among six countries back on red list due to ‘worst variant so far’

UK scientists sounded the alarm on Thursday night over the B.1.1.529 variant (Picture: EPA/Reuters)

Six southern African countries will go back onto England’s red list for international travel due to a new coronavirus variant emerging, which has been called the ‘worst one we’ve seen so far’.

Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday on Friday, and anyone arriving from those countries from 4am on Sunday will have to quarantine in hotels.

Anyone arriving before then, or who has arrived in the UK from the countries listed in the last 10 days, has been told to quarantine at home. They should expect Test and Trace to get in touch to arrange PCR tests.

UK scientists sounded the alarm over the B.1.1.529 variant, which is feared to be able to evade immunity from vaccines and previous infection.

It has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant, which is currently dominant in the UK and was first identified in India late last year.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new variant ‘may be more transmissible’ than the Delta strain and added ‘the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective’.

Many of the variant’s mutations suggest it is more resistant to vaccines and highly transmissible.

It has more alterations to its spike protein – a tool that helps a virus enter a cell – than any other variant so far.

While no cases have yet been found in Britain, officials raised concern over a rapid rise in cases in South Africa.

South Africa’s health minister Joe Phaahla said today that his country has seen a dramatic increase in cases, saying: ‘Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise.’

He said this was particularly the case among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.

Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant, which could soon be officially named Nu.

It has also been identified in Botswana and Hong Kong.

Epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted that the variant appeared to be ‘bad bad bad’ with effective airborne transmission, and was worrying scientists worldwide.

It comes after a man who tested positive on his fourth day of hotel quarantine in Hong Kong after flying from South Africa – despite testing negative immediately after his return – passed the variant onto another guest staying across the hallway.

Hong Kong authorities said that opinion from experts suggested the second man ‘might have been infected with the virus while air flowed to the corridor when [the first man] opened his hotel room door without wearing a surgical mask, coupled with unsatisfactory air flow’.

The first man had taken a connecting flight via Doha in Qatar, Dr Feigl-Ding said, raising the prospect of more cross infection.

He urged anyone who travelled through Doha international airport on or near November 11th to quarantine immediately and get tested.

‘UK’s travel restrictions make sense,’ he tweeted. ‘Look at Hong Kong’s hotel quarantine. It barely contained #B11529 after several negative PCR tests that then turned positive.’

The World Health Organisation’s technical working group is to meet tomorrow to assess the new variant. They may decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet, as we saw with Delta and Alpha before it.

At the moment, around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, and it is expected this figure would have increased as the festive period begins.

Announcing the restrictions, Mr Javid said: ‘Now to be clear, we have not detected any of this new variant in the UK at this point in time.

‘But we’ve always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress that we have made.

Anyone who arrived from the countries within the last 10 days has been asked to take a PCR test (Picture: EPA)

‘So what we will be doing is from midday tomorrow we will be suspending all flights from six, southern African countries and we will add in those countries to the travel red list.

‘If anyone arrives before [Sunday] they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight. If anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests.’

The Scottish Government also said tonight that all arrivals from the six countries will be required to self-isolate and take two PCR tests from midday on Friday, while anyone arriving after 4am on Saturday will need to stay at a managed quarantine hotel.

There are no direct flights from any of the countries into Scotland.

The variant has not yet been given the title ‘variant of concern’ in the UK, but one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert said: ‘This is the worst variant we have seen so far.’

This was one of a chorus of warnings, with Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, also saying the variant could be ‘of real concern’.

Writing on Twitter, he said the strain ‘very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile’.

He added: ‘Export to Asia implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply.

‘Also the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern (predicted escape from most known monoclonal antibodies).

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling helped instigate the first coronavirus lockdown in England, said: ‘The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.

‘There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.

‘It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa.

‘The Government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent.

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

There were previously no countries on England’s red list.

What had been the final seven countries – Colombia, Peru, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Venezuela and Ecuador – were removed on November 1.

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