On November 25, Britain announced that they are alarmed with a new COVID-19 variant spreading in South Africa, which may cause vaccines to be less effective.
According to Reuters, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that the variant, which is called B.1.1.529, has a spike protein that is significantly different from the one found in the original coronavirus, which COVID-19 prevention vaccines are based on.
“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date, and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity, and vaccine-susceptibility,” UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said.
The variant was first discovered at the beginning of this week, and Britain quickly commenced introducing travel restrictions on South Africa as well as five other neighboring countries.
“What we do know is there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible, and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective,” Javid said.
Britain also announced that it is temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Eswatini as of Friday. Any passengers returning to Britain from those countries would be required quarantine.
South African scientists said they had found evidence of the variant in small numbers and are trying to learn its risks.
Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said that the variant had an “unprecedented” number of mutations which in turn has caused a rampant increase in the number of cases in South Africa.
“The government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is, therefore, prudent,” he said.
“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses,” Ferguson added.
The variant has also been found in Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said no cases coming from there had been discovered in Britain.