A newly identified coronavirus variant that has spread in South Africa is the most worrying UK health authorities have seen as it has double the number of mutations of the Delta variant, including some associated with avoiding immune response.
The UK Health Security Agency said the variant – called B.1.1.529 – had a peak protein that was dramatically different from that of the original coronavirus on which COVID-19 vaccines are based.
It has mutations that are likely to evade the immune response generated by previous infection and vaccination, and also mutations associated with increased infectivity.
Health Minister Sajid Javid confirmed at a news conference Friday morning that the UK Health Security Agency is investigating the “deeply worrying” variant.
Javid said the new strain “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain, and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective”.
“Our researchers are deeply concerned about this variant. I am, of course, concerned that it is one of the reasons why we have taken this action today,” he added.
Laboratory studies are needed to assess the likelihood that the mutations will result in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy, scientists said.
Earlier Thursday, 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 has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which is worrying because they can help it avoid the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, the researchers told reporters at a news conference.
The variant is also found in Botswana and Hong Kong.
The UK Health Security Agency said no cases of the variant had been detected in the UK and they were in contact with South African colleagues over their data.
Watch UK Health Minister Sajid Javid provide an update in the video below
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As a result of the infections, Britain will place South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini under red list travel restrictions.
The variant posed “a potentially significant threat to the vaccine program, which we must protect at all costs,” a government source said.
Israel announced on Thursday that it is banning its citizens from traveling to southern Africa and banning entry for foreigners from the region.
South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to Israel’s “red” or highest risk travel list, reflecting the number of coronavirus infections abroad.
Israelis returning from these countries must spend between seven and 14 days in a quarantine hotel upon arrival.