Scientists call for travel ‘code red’ over Covid variant found in southern Africa

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Leading scientists have called for immediate “code red” international travel restrictions, following reports that a new Covid-19 variant is causing a surge in cases in southern Africa.

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The variant, which was only identified on Tuesday, was initially of concern because it contains an “extremely high number” of mutations that could allow it to evade immunity. The latest data presented Thursday by South African scientists showed that the variant appears to be even more permeable and is already present in provinces across the country.


Ivan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and a member of SPI-M, which advises the UK government, called for an immediate “code red” – or “Red List-type” – travel ban to be imposed on the southern for Africa while the transmittance of the new version is being investigated, saying it posed a risk of re-accelerating the pandemic.

He urged countries not to repeat the mistake of failing to act quickly. “What we have learned from other situations like this – some have healed and some have not – is that as long as we are [investigating] You have to be reasonably insane,” he said.

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The new strain, B.1.1.529, was identified following an increase in cases in Gauteng, an urban area comprising Pretoria and Johannesburg. Initially the cluster of cases centered on a university was thought to be due to increased socialism.

However, this week’s version was identified as causing a potential, more ominous, increase. The first detected cases of the variant were collected in Botswana on 11 November and one case has also been found in Hong Kong – a 36-year-old man who tested positive in quarantine after traveling to South Africa.

Over the past 48 hours, South African scientists reviewed PCR test data from the Gauteng region and found that the new variants appear to be behind the increase in cases, with cases increasing by almost 90% in just a few weeks.

Nationally, South Africa’s daily number of infections climbed to 1,200 on Wednesday, up from 106 in the prior month.

Speaking at a hastily called news conference on Thursday, virologist Tulio de Oliveira said: “We can see very early signs that this lineage has grown rapidly in Gauteng and may already be present in most provinces. “

Prof Anne von Gottberg, clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa, said there were now about 100 cases confirmed through full sequencing of samples, compared to only 10 reported yesterday, and community transmission. There were signs.

,[The distribution] It was a bit narrow two weeks ago, it was mostly in the area related to the outbreak, and now the cases and percentage positivity is increasing in other districts and sub-districts,” she said. “It may have been localized to begin with but it is definitely spreading to other districts.”

Professor Richard Lessels, an infectious disease specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, said the coming days and weeks will be crucial to determine the severity of the variant. “At the beginning of the resurgence we are sometimes fooled into thinking that everything is a minor disease, and that may be because it is initially spreading to younger age groups, so we have to see that the spread is more generalised. Done whether we are seeing more severe cases of the disease,” he said.

“What gives us some concerns [is] Maybe this variant not only has increased transmissibility so it spreads more efficiently, but may also be able to gain protection in certain parts of the immune system and in our immune system,” he said.

Birney and other UK scientists called for the new controls to be introduced immediately, saying it would be better to reverse the measures if further investigations are found to be less concern than feared.

Professor Christina Pagel from University College London said: “In my opinion the UK should just overtake it. As far as we know, it is not here yet. The UK’s status as an international travel hub, very few restrictions in the UK And while it seems prudent to add South Africa and close neighbors to the Red List because of worrying signals from South Africa, we must act now or risk being too late.”

England no longer has any country on the red list imposing quarantine on travelers arriving from abroad. Those who have not been fully vaccinated should test negative before flight and arrange for two PCR tests upon arrival. Those who have been fully vaccinated will have to undergo a COVID test within two days of landing.

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The World Health Organization said it was “closely monitoring” the reported version and expected to convene a technical meeting on Friday to determine whether to designate it as “interested” or “concerned”. should go.

A No 10 spokesperson said: “We have one of the largest genomic sequencing programs here in the UK that allows us to spot and track variants as they emerge, as we have done throughout the pandemic, we are tracking And will continue to keep this special edition under investigation.”

Asked whether travel restrictions would be required before Christmas as a result of the variant, the spokesperson said: “We will continue to keep the latest situation, the latest scientific evidence and data under review, as we have done throughout the pandemic. We have said before that if we think we need to take action we will, but we will continue to monitor this variant and other variants in the same way as we have done during the pandemic. ,

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