Britain stops flights to South Africa after alarm over new form of virus that could hit vaccines

What is clear is that it has the most mutations of any strain yet identified. This has given rise to concern in South Africa and internationally, where authorities fear a wave of cases that could increase the pressure on already strained health systems.

The UK announced that it is temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini, and that returning British travelers from these destinations will be quarantined.

Javid said more data was needed, but that travel restrictions were needed as a precautionary measure, as scientists said laboratory tests were needed to assess the likelihood that the mutations would result in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy.

Officials have advised the government on the need to act quickly and preventively in the event that concerns about the impact of the variant are confirmed, although it may take weeks to generate all the necessary information on its characteristics.

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

“Early evidence from genomic monitoring in South Africa suggests that B.1.1.529 is a serious cause for concern,” said Ewan Birney, Deputy Director – General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

“We know that early action is far better than late action. It may turn out that this variant is not as big a threat as alpha and delta, but the potential consequences of not acting on the opportunity it could be are serious. “

Chronic infection

The new variant is likely to have developed during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV / AIDS patient, said Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute in London.

The world’s largest number of HIV cases has made it harder for South Africa to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, because the virus can linger for longer in people whose immune systems are compromised, potentially offering a bigger window for mutations.

Experts from the World Health Organization met on Friday with authorities from South Africa, according to British officials. It will take several weeks to see the effect of the new variant

hospitalizations and deaths, and to investigate how it may interact with vaccines.

It told Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College, London Daily Telegraph: “We have all become pandemic tired, but if this was a report of a terrorist threat, we would now raise the threat level from amber to red.”

Britain’s move is a further blow to the aviation industry, which had begun to recover from previous travel restrictions and shutdowns, but which is now facing new restrictions on long-haul flights, although the virus is rising again in parts of Europe.

The measures announced on Thursday mark the biggest change in Britain’s COVID-19 travel rules since the so-called traffic light system was overhauled earlier in the autumn to ease border crossings.

From 500 to 700 people arrive daily to the UK via South Africa by plane, a number that is usually expected to increase over the next four to six weeks due to seasonal travel.

In South Africa, virologists have discovered nearly 100 cases associated with the new variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

– with Bloomberg


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