The new ‘worst ever’ Botswana Covid variant causing international alarm has been detected in Israel today, as the ultra-infectious and vaccine resistant strain spreads to four countries in two weeks.
Israel’s health ministry said the patient tested positive for B.1.1.529 after returning from Malawi, suggesting it is already widespread on continental Africa. There are two other suspected cases in Israel.
Germany and Italy joined Britain in suspending travel from South Africa today and, in a sign of growing alarm, the European Union is also proposing prohibiting travel from the country and its neighbours.
South Africa’s infection rate spiked 93 per cent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is driving the surge. Local scientists say it has likely spread to all the country’s nine provinces, but there is yet to be a hospitalisations surge in epicentre Johannesburg.
The new case is the third outside of Africa after two were spotted in Hong Kong. The first was in a traveller who had recently returned from South Africa and a second has now been detected in the same quarantine hotel.
In response, the UK has suspended all travel from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from midday and will trace everyone who has come into Britain from these countries in past 10 days.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the UK was taking a ‘safety-first approach’ and acting quickly to slow down its entry into the country.
JCVI member Professor Adam Finn raised the prospect of lockdown curbs being imposed on the UK this winter, saying: ‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.’
No cases have been spotted in Britain so far, but UK experts say travel bans will likely only ‘delay’ its arrival because if it is more transmissible than DElta it will ‘get here eventually’.
The super mutant which has 30 mutations — the most ever and twice as many as delta — caused cases in South Africa to spike 93 per cent in a day.
Infections have mostly been detected in young people and in a glimmer of hope hospitalisations are yet to rise — but admissions are a lagging indicator.
South Africa has spotted 77 cases so far but its scientists warn it may have already spread to most of Southern Africa.
It has a ‘concerning constellation’ of mutations that scientists fear could make it ultra infectious and better able to dodge vaccine-induced immunity compared to Delta and other variants.
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
Mr Shapps told Sky News the UK was acting immediately to ‘give us a bit of time’ for scientists to work out whether this variant is of ‘significant concern’.
He added: ‘We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.’
Germany and Italy on Friday joined Britain in banning most travel from South Africa today as governments scramble to prevent the spread of a new Covid variant with a large number of mutations.
In a sign of the growing alarm, the European Union on separately proposed prohibiting travel from southern Africa.
The EU’s executive ‘will propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529’, EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted.
Fears of another Christmas lockdown raised over variant
Britons were put on alert for a Christmas lockdown today as ministers and experts warned travel bans can only delay a new feared ‘super-mutant’ strain coming to the UK.
Scientists insisted people must be braced for a ‘change in restrictions’ amid growing alarm at the emergence of a ‘worst-ever’ Covid variant that could make vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective.
The government acted last night to ban arrivals from South Africa and five other countries. No cases have yet been detected in the UK, but top experts said that if the strain spreads faster and can avoid current jabs it ‘will get here’.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the aim of the travel restrictions is to ‘slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country’.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said more needs to be learned about the scale of the threat — already believed to have caused a jump in infections in South Africa.
Professor Finn told ITV’s Good Morning Britain he could not predict if the development would affect Christmas.
‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions,’ he said.
Germany’s new travel restrictions, starting Friday night, will affect South Africa and ‘probably neighbouring nations’, Spahn said, with only German nationals allowed entry.
They must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival even if vaccinated. In Britain they must quarantine for 11 days in Government hotels for about £2,800.
‘The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,’ Spahn said, with Germany in the grip of a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.
In Rome, the government on Friday announced it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini in the past fortnight.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, ‘and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution’.
Asian countries are also preparing to tighten curbs.
Two Welsh rugby clubs in South Africa for a tournament are scrambling to leave as soon as possible, and British and Irish golfers have withdrawn from the Johannesburg Open.
South Africa blasted Britain’s travel ban as rushed.
Foreign minister Naledi Pandor said: ‘Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.’
A spokesman for the Government said: ‘Imposing bans on travellers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome.’
A WHO working group on virus evolution is due to meet on Friday to discuss whether to officially give it that label, a designation only given to four variants so far.
WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a video posted on Twitter that it could take a few weeks to understand the impact of the variant’s mutations.
UK Health Security Agency scientists — who took over from Public Health England — said it had the ‘worst ever’ combination of mutations.
South African experts said on one part of its spike protein — which the virus uses to invade cells — it had ten mutations. For comparison, the Beta variant has three and Delta has two in the same location.
Israel is the first country to follow the UK and suspend all travel from the six Southern African nations. There are no plans yet to suspend travel from Malawi.
UKHSA scientists have labelled it a ‘variant under investigation’. The World Health Organization will today hold an emergency meeting on the mutant strain.
Although concerns have been raised over the variant, nothing is known about its virulence and whether those who catch it are more likely to become seriously ill and die. Scientists are working to reveal this information in the coming days.
PCR tests check for three specific proteins to spot an infection with the virus, but when someone is infected with B.1.1.529 only two of these are detected. The above graph shows the number of tests that have not spotted the third gene SGTF is surging in most provinces, suggesting the variant may already be widespread
The above slide shows variants that have been detected by province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests B.1.1.529 is focused in Gauteng province. This was presented at a briefing today from the South African Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. It reveals that there is an uptick of cases in the northern part of the province. It is not clear whether this could be driven by B.1.1.529
What impact might it have on vaccines?
Scientists have raised concern that the super Botswana Covid variant may be better able to dodge vaccine-induced immunity than all previous strains — including Delta.
UK Health Security Agency scientists say it is the ‘worst ever’. It combines mutations previously seen on the Beta variant, which sparked concern last year as it was thought to be more vaccine resistant, and those on the more transmissible Alpha strain that was behind the second wave.
Scientists warn it is ‘plausible’ that the mutant variant is spreading quickly because it is better able to infect people who have immunity either from vaccines or previous infection.
In South Africa where it is spreading most people already have immunity from previous infection. Some 40 per cent have also received two doses of the Covid jab.
But despite the concern lab tests are yet to confirm that the variant is better able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity than other mutant strains.
Very little is known about its virulence and whether someone who catches the mutant strain is more likely to end up in hospital or dying from the disease.
Could it trigger another lockdown?
There are no suggestions that it could trigger another lockdown in the UK at this stage.
Officials have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and Botswana — where it has been detected — and their neighbours Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Flights are suspended from these countries to England until Sunday, as hundreds of hotel rooms are prepared for mandatory quarantine.
UK experts say the move is ‘prudent’ and that it is likely to delay the arrival of the mutant strain in the country by weeks or months. No cases have been spotted on British shores so far.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said it was not yet clear whether this could affect Christmas.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.’
He added: ‘There are a number of things going on now to understand this, to look for it, to trace it, to hopefully stamp it out if it is already here.’