LONDON – Britain on Thursday said it was concerned about the spread of a newly identified variant of the coronavirus in South Africa that could make vaccines less effective and jeopardize progress across the world in the fight against the pandemic.
The UK Health Safety Agency said the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a spike protein that was drastically different from that of the original coronavirus on which the COVID-19 vaccines are based.
Authorities are calling the variant, which has twice the number of mutations of the currently dominant Delta variant, “worst to date.”
It wasn’t identified for the first time until earlier this week, but Britain rushed to introduce travel restrictions in South Africa and five neighboring countries, acting much faster than with the previous variants.
“What we do know is that there are a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations we have seen in the Delta variant,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters .
“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and that the current vaccines we have may well be less effective.”
Britain on Friday announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 12:00 GMT and returning British travelers of these destinations should be quarantined.
Javid said more data was needed, but travel restrictions were needed as a precautionary measure as scientists said laboratory studies were needed to assess the likelihood that mutations would result in significantly reduced vaccine effectiveness.
Officials have advised the government on the need to act quickly and preemptively in case concerns about the impact of the variant are confirmed, although it could take weeks to generate all the necessary information on its characteristics.
Earlier Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected the new variant of COVID-19 in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.
The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said no cases of the variant have been detected in Britain.
“Early evidence from genomic surveillance in South Africa suggests that B.1.1.529 is a serious cause for concern,” said Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
“We know that early action is much better than late action. This variant may not be as big a threat as Alpha and Delta, but the potential consequences of not acting on the possibility that this may be. be are serious. “
(Reporting by Alistair Smout and William Schomberg; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)
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