New coronavirus strain could already be in the UK, health officials warn

·Political Correspondent - Yahoo News UK
·5-min read

Sajid Javid has warned there could be many more cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, amid fears the 'concerning' strain has already reached the UK.

In a Commons statement on Friday, the health secretary told MPs that the new B.1.1.529 variant was “of huge international concern”.

He said it “is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries” - but added that no cases have yet been identified in Britain.

The variant has so far been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong while Belgium has confirmed the first EU cases had been detected in the EU.

The new variant raises the spectre of a potential surge in cases in the run-up to Christmas that result in the return of restrictions.

Javid went on: “We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusual large number of mutations.

"Yesterday, the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a new variant under investigation and the very technical group has designated it as a variant under investigation with very high priority.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid, pictured speaking in the Commons on Friday, gave an update on the new COVID variant. (ParliamentTV)
Health Secretary Sajid Javid, pictured speaking in the Commons on Friday, gave an update on the new COVID variant. (ParliamentTV)

"We don't know if the exponential growth in SA is associated with the new variant, but PCR analysis shows there could be many more cases of this new variant than have been sequenced so far," he added.

The variant has over 50 mutations, 32 of which are on the spike protein. Vaccines are based on the spike protein to provide immunity to the virus. 

Despite the news, the government has insisted that they intend to stick with current coronavirus guidance and do not plan implement their Plan B strategy - which would involve the reintroduction of certain measures like mandatory mask wearing. 

The new variant has been confirmed in five countries. (Yahoo News)
The new variant has been confirmed in five countries. (Yahoo News)

Scientists are particularly concerned because, not only may it have the ability to dodge vaccines, but it could also be far more contagious than any of the previous strains of the virus. 

Read more: Will the ‘Nu’ variant bypass vaccines? Experts say it will take ‘weeks’ to find out

Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at UK Health Security Agency, said it was the most "complex" and "worrying" variant they had come across. 

On whether the variant had already arrived in the UK, Hopkins said "it's always possible". 

"We have no cases identified whatsoever yet, nothing in our genome sequencing," she said.

"So overall, I think the situation is reassuring in-country, but of course, people are arriving every day.”

On Friday, Hopkins explained the significance of the mutations to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. 

“The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta," she said. 

“And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation, there’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.

Read more: How worried should we be about the new Covid variants?

“So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite it's definitely the most complex variant before.”

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, as of 25 November. (PA)
Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, as of 25 November. (PA)

Concern about the variant is so serious that the government rapidly placed six countries - South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini & Namibia - on to the UK’s travel red list.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said the plans were a “safety-first approach”.

Authorities around the world have reacted with alarm to the new variant, with the EU joining Britain in tightening border controls.

Israel has imposed a travel ban covering most of Africa after reporting its first case of the variant and warned it is on the brink of declaring a state of emergency.

Belgium became the first country in Europe to confirm a case on Friday afternoon.

However the World Health Organization has urged caution about acting too hastily, 

South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor also said on Friday that the UK’s decision to ban flights “seems to have been rushed”.

The WHO also warned it would take weeks to determine how effective vaccines were against the variant, which was first identified this week, but the news pummelled global stocks amid fears what new bans would do to the global travel industry and already shaky economies across southern Africa.

Watch: Health Secretary warns new COVID variant 'could pose substantial risk to public health'

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