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What We Know About The New Covid-19 Variant That's Alarming Governments And Scientists

What We Know About The New Covid-19 Variant That's Alarming Governments And Scientists
6 min read

The government has expressed concern about a new Covid-19 variant, which is believed to be one of the most heavily mutated versions of the virus discovered so far.

The new mutation, called B.1.1.529, appears to have originated in Botswana, with cases of the new variant being most heavily concentrated in South Africa. It has also been detected in Hong Kong. 

So far there have been no detected cases of the new variant in the UK, but the situation has been described by health secretary Sajid Javid as "fast moving".

“We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health,” he told the House of Commons in an emergency statement on Friday.  

On Thursday night transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that six African countries would be placed on the travel red list.

There are still many unknowns around B.1.1.529, which scientists and medical experts are desperately working to learn more about.

What is the new variant?

The new Covid-19 variant has been labelled B.1.1.529 by the World Health Organisation. The variant contains a significant number of spike protein mutations, as well as mutations in other areas of the viral genome.

These mutations are significant because scientists believe they could change how the virus interacts with vaccines. The new mutations also may affect levels of transmissibility and potential for treatment, however further scientific investigations are required.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, told a media briefing that B.1.1.529 has a total of 50 mutations. Specifically, in the receptor binding domain area of the virus, B.1.1.529 has 10 mutations. For perspective, the Delta variant that emerged earlier this year and made its way around the world only contained two.

Multiple mutations within a Covid-19 variant aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but what is important is understanding how the new mutations act. This is something scientists are still investigating for B.1.1.529.

So far, the largest concentration of B.1.1.529 is in the Gauteng province in South Africa, where there are 77 confirmed cases of the variant. There have also been four reported cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong, which has been linked to travel from South Africa.

There have been no confirmed cases in the UK.

Are scientists worried?

Scientists have expressed serious preliminary concern about the new variant, although have insisted that it’s important not to make any sweeping judgments until more facts are established.

Researchers still don’t know how quickly the variant would spread in countries with higher vaccine rates than South Africa, where only 24% of the population have received both jabs.

But, Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency, has warned the new variant is the “most worrying we’ve seen”.

She is concerned its R number – the rate at which the variant reproduces – sits at two. Any R number above one means transmission is strong.

“What we’re seeing in South Africa is that they were at a very, very low point, with a very low amount of cases being detected a day, and in a shorter period than two weeks they have more than doubled their epidemiology picture, Hopkins told the BBC’s Today programme.

She expressed particular concern that it's transmissibility was the highest we'd seen since the start of the pandemic.

"That would cause a major problem if you had that high transmission with this type of virus in a population where it may evade the immune responses that are already there,” Hopkins said. 

Tim Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial College Department of Infectious Disease, who was one of the first to raise the alarm over the new variant urged people not to panic over the development. 

“Worth emphasising (B.1.1.529) is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled, however it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile (would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about),” he tweeted. 

What is government saying?

Health secretary Sajid Javid has said the new variant is "of huge international concern", and that "early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant". 

The government says it’s taking a “safety first” approach to the new variant, and has already moved to block travel into the UK from several affected countries. 

South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia will be all placed on the red travel list from 4am on Saturday, and until then, travellers from those countries will be required to take a PCR test and quarantine at home for 10 days.

From Sunday they must quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days. Direct flights to the six African countries have also been banned until government hotel quarantine facilities are up and running.

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UKHSA, has said its scientists are working in "constant close collaboration" with their counterparts around the globe to get agead of new variants. 

She described B.1.1.529 as "the most significant variant we have encountered to date" and confirmed that urgent research was underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility. 

"The results of these investigations will determine what public health actions may limit the impact of B.1.1.529," Harries added. 

“This is a clear reminder to everyone that this pandemic is not over, and we all have a responsibility to do what we can to limit transmission and reduce the infection rate and prevent the emergence of new variants.

"This means coming forward for vaccination as soon as possible and following public health advice."

In a statement today, England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty described B.1.1.529 as "relatively localised" but added that "it has spread to some other countries in very small numbers". 

"The sensible thing at this stage is to be precautionary, and then, if things look good, ease back," Whitty said. 

"There's an awful lot we don't know and I think it's probably not terribly helpful to speculate... we really can't tell."

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