COVID-19 variant described as ‘worst yet’ emerges in South Africa, prompting UK to ban travel from six countries

A newly identified coronavirus variant in South Africa worries UK health authorities due to its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the variant, called B.1.1.529, had a peak protein that was dramatically different from the original coronavirus variant on which the vaccines were based.

It said it had mutations that were likely to evade the immune response generated by both previous COVID-19 infection and vaccination.

It also had mutations associated with increased infectivity, UKHSA said.

Officials characterized the variant, which has twice the number of mutations as the currently dominant Delta variant, as the “worst yet”.

“What we do know is that there are a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” said UK Health Minister Sajid Javid.

“And it suggests that it may well be more transmissible, and the current vaccines we have may well be less effective.”

The UK announced today that it is temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

British travelers returning from these destinations must be quarantined, it said.

A red sign on the British street shows COVID-19 staying 2 m apart with a description of two people walking socially distanced
Britain has temporarily banned inbound flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries. (Reuters: Andrew Boyers)

Laboratory studies were needed to assess the likelihood that the mutations would result in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy, scientists said.

Officials advised the UK Government to act quickly and preventively in case concerns about the impact of the variant were confirmed, although it could take weeks to generate all the necessary information on its characteristics.

Earlier this week, South African researchers said they had discovered the new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.

The variant is also found in Botswana and Hong Kong.

UKHSA said no cases of the variant had been detected in the UK and that they were in contact with South African colleagues over their data.

South Africa’s health minister, Joe Phaahlahas, said the country had seen an “exponential increase” in new infections due to the B.1.1.529 variant.

Tulio de Oliveira, from South Africa’s Network for Genomic Surveillance, said studies of the variant were underway.

The team has 100 whole genomes of the variant and expects to have many more in the next few days.

The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmission ability,” he said.

AP / Reuters

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