LONDON – Britain said on Thursday it is concerned about a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa that could make the vaccine less effective in fighting the pandemic and undermine progress made around the world.

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The UK’s Health Protection Agency said the variant, called b.1.1.529, contains a spike protein that differs dramatically from the one in the original coronavirus on which the COVID-19 vaccines are based.

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

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It was only first recognized at the start of the week, but Britain rushed to impose travel restrictions on South Africa and five neighboring countries, acting more swiftly than in previous editions.

“What we do know is that there is a significant number of mutations, probably double the number of mutations we have seen in the delta variant,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters.

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“And that would suggest that it may be more permeable and that the current vaccines that we have in place may be less effective.”

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Britain announced it was temporarily banning flights to and from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 1200 GMT on Friday and must return British passengers from those destinations.

Javid said more data was needed but travel restrictions were necessary as a precaution, as scientists said laboratory studies were needed to assess the potential for the mutation that resulted in the vaccine’s effectiveness being greatly reduced.

Officials have advised the government that if concerns arise over the impact of the variant, it may take weeks to generate all the necessary information about its features.

Earlier on Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected a small number of new COVID-19 variants and were working to understand its possible effects.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK’s Health Protection Agency said no cases of the variant have been detected in the UK.

“Early evidence from genomic surveillance in South Africa suggests that B.1.1.529 is a serious cause for concern,” said Ivan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

“We know that early action is far better than late action. It may turn out that this variant is not as big a threat as alpha and delta, but the potential consequences of not acting on this possibility could be dire.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and William Schomberg; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)