New African Covid variant poses 'significant threat to vaccine program'

  • New variant B.1.1.529 detected in South Africa

  • Scientists fear it could evade Covid vaccines

  • UK bans flights from several African countries

A newly identified coronavirus variant that has spread in South Africa is the most concerning British health officials have seen as the country tightens its border controls in response.

The country hit hard by the early stages of the pandemic is warning things could again turn very ugly after the World Health Organisation raised concerns about the new Covid variant.

Labelled B.1.1.529, it has double the number of mutations of the Delta variant including some associated with evading immune response.

The UK Health Security Agency said the variant has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that Covid-19 vaccines are based on.

The UK has suspended flights from certain African nations over concerns a new Covid variant will threaten the country's vaccination program. Source: Getty
The UK has suspended flights from certain African nations over concerns a new Covid variant will threaten the country's vaccination program. Source: Getty

New variant B.1.1.529 could evade Covid vaccines

It has mutations that are likely to evade the immune response generated by prior infection and vaccination, and also mutations associated with increased infectivity.

Lab studies are needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy, scientists said.

Earlier on Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected the new Covid-19 variant in about 100 ccases and were working to understand its potential implications.

The variant has a "very unusual constellation" of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, the scientists told reporters at a news conference.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong.

New variant 'worse we've seen so far'

The UK Health Security Agency said that no cases of the variant had been detected in Britain and they were in contact with South African colleagues over their data.

Britain has now suspended flights from a number of African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, the BBC reported.

One expert told the broadcaster the variant was "the worst one we've seen so far".

A graph showing the new variant cases surge.
A graph shared by health authorities overnight in South Africa shows how the variant has seen a sudden surge in cases. Source: South African Gov

'Most alarming variant since Delta'

Outspoken epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding offered the same ominous sentiment on social media.

"This variant is the most alarming variant found since the Delta Variant discovery," he tweeted. "Scientists worldwide are worried."

The newly discovered strain posed "a potentially significant threat to the vaccine program which we have to protect at all costs," UK government sources were quoted as saying in The Guardian.

While scientist are cautioning that more work is needed to better understand the variant, early indicators are troubling.

Israel announced on Thursday it was barring its citizens from travelling to southern Africa and banning the entry of foreigners from the region.

South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to Israel's "red", or highest-risk, travel list that reflects coronavirus infection rates overseas.

Israelis returning home from those countries would be required to spend between seven and 14 days in a quarantine hotel after arrival.

with Reuters

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