New variant B.1.1.529 in South Africa raises concern

South Africa will be placed under England’s red list travel restrictions after scientists raised the alarm over what is thought to be the worst Covid-19 variant ever identified. Hundreds of people who have recently returned from South Africa, where the B.1.1.529 variant was detected, are expected to be tracked down and offered tests in an effort to avoid the introduction of the new strain, which it is feared to be more transmissible and has the potential to evade immunity. Whitehall sources said the variant posed “a potentially significant threat to the vaccine programme which we have to protect at all costs”.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said from 12:00 GMT on Friday six countries would be added to the red list, with flights being temporarily banned. All flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini are being suspended.

Virus
B.1.1.529 variant will be given a Greek code-name by WHO on Friday

The variant, which was identified on Tuesday, initially sparked concern because it carries an “extremely high number” of mutations meaning that the spike protein now looks dramatically different from the version that vaccines were designed to target. The latest data, presented by South African scientists on Thursday, revealed that the variant also appears to be more transmissible and is already present in provinces throughout the country. Scientific studies in the laboratory will yield give a clearer picture, but answers will come more quickly from monitoring the virus in the real world. There have been 77 fully confirmed cases in Gauteng province in South Africa, four cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong (which is directly linked to travel from South Africa). However, there are clues the variant has spread even more widely.

UK scientists called for new controls to be brought in immediately, saying that it would be preferable to reverse measures if the variant was found to be less of a concern than feared following further investigation. Prof Christina Pagel, of University College London, said: “In my opinion the UK should get ahead of this right now. As far as we know, it’s not here yet. Adding South Africa and close neighbours to the red list seems sensible because of UK status as international travel hub, very few restrictions in UK and the worrying signs from South Africa, we must act now or risk it being too late.” “What gives us some concerns [is] that this variant might not just have enhanced transmissibility, so spreads more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system.” click full source. and here.

So there we have it. This is the most heavily mutated variant so far and is now radically different to the form that emerged in Wuhan, and the vaccines may not be as effective. For now, we are left with a variant that raises significant concerns despite huge holes in our knowledge, and one that needs to be watched closely and asks deep questions about what to do and when. The lesson of the pandemic is you can’t always wait until you have all the answers.

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