What is the new version and why is it a concern?
Scientists have detected a new COVID-19 variant called B.1.1.529 and are working to understand its possible effects. About 50 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
Scientists have said that B.1.1.529 has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which is worrying because they may help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible. Any new variant capable of evading vaccines or spreading faster than the now-dominant delta version could pose a significant threat as the world emerges from the pandemic.
Where is it actually found?
Early indications from clinical laboratories suggest that the diversity has increased rapidly in the South African province of Gauteng and may already be present in the other eight provinces of the country.
In a regular daily update on nationally confirmed cases, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported 2,465 new Covid-19 infections, slightly less than double the number of infections the previous day. NICD did not attribute the latest resurgence to the new version, although some prominent local scientists suspect this is the cause.
South Africa has confirmed about 100 samples as B.1.1529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case being a traveler from South Africa. Scientists believe that 90% of new cases in Gauteng may be B.188.8.131.529.
How does it compare to other variants?
Senior scientists on Thursday evening described B.1.1529 as the worst variant observed since the start of the pandemic. It has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against COVID. This is almost double the number associated with the Delta variant. Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect and spread cells, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.
The delta variant was first detected in India in late 2020, but has since spread around the world, increasing the rate of cases and deaths. Other coronavirus variants include alpha (which originated in Kent in the UK), beta (formerly known as the South African variant) and gamma (originally found in Brazil). Following a decline in cases in Japan, it has been suggested that the variants may “push themselves out of existence”.
What new restrictions are being imposed?
South Africa will be placed under England’s Red List travel restrictions from Friday afternoon – affecting between 500 and 700 people who normally travel from South Africa to the UK each day through operators including British Airways and Virgin Airlines.
The ban will also cover flights to Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Scotland confirmed that everyone arriving from the countries must self-isolate and undergo two PCR tests from Friday afternoon, while anyone arriving after 4 a.m. on Saturday will be required to stay in a managed quarantine hotel. Will be
Recent arrivals from southern Africa will also be tracked and tests will be offered in an attempt to avoid the introduction of a new strain.
Israel also announced that it would ban its citizens from traveling to southern Africa – covering the same six countries as well as Mozambique – and block the entry of foreign travelers from the region.
England’s travel red list had been left empty since the last seven countries, including Peru, Colombia and Panama, were dropped on 1 November. South Africa was deported on 11 October, meaning vaccinated travelers were once again able to travel to the country, without being quarantined in a hotel upon their return.
What does the new version mean for the UK and what could it mean for Christmas?
It is too early to tell. Scientists in the UK are working round the clock to understand more about the new edition. Because the variant has recently emerged, scientists do not yet have evidence of its transmittance or ability to survive vaccines. With a month until Christmas, there will be concerns that the edition – if it is allowed to spread – could trigger the need for further restrictions.
It may be weeks before scientists have all the details about the variant – and how serious a threat it could pose to the world.
Can I do anything to protect myself?
Yes. If you have not already done so, it is advisable to get vaccinated. Britons 40 years of age and older and who have received their second dose of vaccine at least six months ago are currently eligible for their booster.