From discovery to global panic in 48 hours: How South African scientists’ warnings about soaring cases of Covid super-mutant variant sparked frantic cabinet meeting and worldwide travel ban

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  • B.1.1529 was first discovered in Hong Kong on Monday when a patient had returned from South Africa
  • The edition garnered international attention on Wednesday but was No10. dismissed as ‘issue’ by
  • The rise in cases in South Africa led to a meeting of ministers and experts on Thursday to discuss the response
  • Britain and Europe closed their borders to southern Africa today and experts called for more lockdowns

Omicron Variant Timeline

  • Monday, November 22: Variant found in Hong Kong, Botswana and South Africa
  • Tuesday, November 23UK scientist raises alarm about ‘terrible’ 32 mutations
  • Wednesday, November 24Downing Street claims tension is not an ‘issue’, but ministers meet behind the scenes
  • Thursday, November 25Cases increased in South Africa and Britain, flight ban issued
  • Friday, November 26: Tension found close to the border in Belgium and countries around the world
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The world today locked itself out of southern Africa in response to a super mutant variant that was unheard of a few days ago.


B. – now renamed Omicron – was first picked up on Monday in Hong Kong in a patient who had arrived from South Africa.

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Cases also emerged in Botswana and South Africa, not attracting international attention until Wednesday after a British scientist noted 32 of its ‘terrible’ mutations on social media.

A Boris Johnson spokesman said the variant was not an ‘issue’ on Wednesday afternoon, while UK experts warned it had a terrifying set of mutations that could allow it to dodge vaccines.

By Thursday the South African government was forced to warn the world about tensions in a gloomy press conference, acknowledging that it had triggered an ‘exponential’ rise in Guateng province and every corner of the country. was likely to happen, leaving Delta behind at brutal speed.

The UK Health and Safety Agency (UKHSA) said it was monitoring the situation closely, but there was no threat to Britain at the time. Chris Whitty and other leading experts warned of a potential global outbreak that could undermine the UK’s vaccine programme.

Journalists were briefed Thursday night by senior scientists at a hastily held briefing, where they were told that the variant is at least 40 percent more vaccine than Delta.

The media was told that the strain was ‘the worst ever’ seen and that the variant could be at least 40 percent more vaccine invasive.

At the same time, an emergency COVID committee cabinet meeting was convened to discuss the UK’s next steps.

It swiftly announced last night from Health Secretary Sajid Javid that there would be travel restrictions on six African countries in the south of the continent.

And scientists hit the airwaves this morning to warn of a possible return to harsher COVID restrictions due to stress this winter.

New cases were reported in Israel and then Belgium and European countries began closing their borders to people arriving from South Africa, with passengers unable to leave a plane in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Here MailOnline reviews how the Botswana edition inspired a global pandemic within 48 hours…

Monday and Tuesday

Researchers in Hong Kong on Monday raised the alarm about the new strain after two travelers who had recently returned from South Africa discovered strains.

It was also raised in Botswana, where it was sequenced three times, and South Africa – which had seen only one case at the time.

Scientists from all three countries uploaded it to an international database of variants used by experts around the world, including the UK.

Dr Tom Peacock, a British virologist at Imperial College London working with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), expressed concern about the strain’s 32 ‘terrible’ mutations – twice as many as Delta – on Tuesday.

Writing on social media, Dr Peacock said: ‘Just spotted: very small group of variants associated with southern Africa with very long branch lengths and a really terrifying spike mutation profile.’


MailOnline broke the news about the variant on Wednesday, before an official spokesperson for the No10 shut it down as ‘something that didn’t seem to be an issue’ despite experts’ fears that it would compare to Delta. More vaccines will be developed in

Some scientists dismissed fears, saying that the strain’s large amount of mutation means it could be unstable – meaning it would be unlikely to become widespread.

But others warned that it could have implications for the rest of the world if it starts carrying the dominant Delta version in South Africa.

Professor François Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said it probably emerged as a long-lasting infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone who was not diagnosed with AIDS.

He said it is likely that the variant will be more capable of dodging antibodies than Delta.

Professor Balloux told MailOnline: ‘At the moment this needs to be closely monitored. But there is no need to be overly concerned, until it starts increasing in frequency.’

Behind the scenes, MailOnline understands that there were ‘extensive conversations’ between British government scientists and those in South Africa on Wednesday and Thursday.


Cases began to rise sharply on Thursday in South Africa’s Guateng province, with a particular spike in Johannesburg, where they increased by 93 percent in a single day.

The South African government held a press conference on the same day, stating that they were ‘concerned by the growth spurt in this edition’.

British ministers were called on Thursday to an emergency meeting of the COVID Operations Cabinet Committee, chaired by Cabinet Office minister Steven Barkley, to discuss the closure of Britain’s borders to travelers from Africa.

They were told that the vaccine would be at least 40 percent less effective than the variant—due to a mutation it shares with the native South…


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