Belgium today became the first European country to confirm a case of the super mutant Botswana variant as it spreads to three continents in just a fortnight.
Its health ministry said the infection was spotted in an unvaccinated young woman who had returned from Egypt 11 days ago, suggesting it is already widespread in Africa.
Israel has also detected a case in a vaccinated individual who had returned from Malawi. Two other suspected cases are being investigated.
The mutant strain, scientifically named B.1.1.529, is considered the ‘worst ever’ by scientists because its mutations likely make it ultra infectious and better able to resist vaccines than any other variant.
Britain, Germany, Italy and a host of other nations have rushed out travel restrictions for six countries in Southern Africa in a desperate bid to delay its arrival on their shores.
Flights flying from South Africa to the Netherlands were not allowed to touch down today, and told by airport officials they ‘cannot enter’ the country.
Most cases of the variant have been spotted in South Africa, but infections have also been reported in Botswana and in Hong Kong in a traveller returning from the African continent.
The World Health Organization is currently holding an emergency meeting to discuss the variant, which could be named ‘Nu’ within hours in line with its Greek alphabet naming system for Covid variants.
Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid has raised the prospect of travel being suspended from more countries, saying the variant is a clear sign the pandemic is ‘far from over’. He called on everyone to get their booster jabs.
South Africa’s infection rate spiked 93 per cent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is driving the surge with local scientists saying it is likely already in all the country’s nine provinces. There is yet to be a surge in hospitalisations at the epicentre Johannesburg.
Cases of the variant have only been confirmed in these countries, but experts say it is likely already widespread in Africa. Infections have been linked to travellers returning from Egypt and Malawi, but both are yet to report a case
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
Professor Marc Van Ranst, a virologist who works with Belgium’s public health institute Sciensano, tweeted that one case was found in a traveller who returned from Egypt on November 11 and first had symptoms on November 22.
Countries are restricting travel from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. No measures have been announced for arrivals from Malawi.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain was taking a ‘safety-first approach’ and acting quickly to slow down its entry into the country. German ministers said the ‘last thing we need’ is another variant.
Fears of another Christmas lockdown to curb B.1.1.529’s transmission have been raised. British vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn said people needed to ‘be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions’.
The variant could already be in the UK, experts say, although the current signs are encouraging. They warn it will likely eventually reach British shores because it is so transmissible.
The super mutant which has 30 mutations — the most ever and twice as many as delta — which scientists fear could make the mutant strain ultra infectious and better able to dodge vaccine-induced immunity than Delta.
Fears of another UK 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.
South Africa has spotted 77 cases so far but its scientists warn it may have already spread to most of Southern Africa.
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.
The second case in Hong Kong is in a traveller who returned from Canada. But officials say they may have caught the variant while in quarantine when the doors between hotel rooms were open.
Belgium’s top virologist Marc van Ranst revealed officials in the country were racing to confirm whether two cases spotted in the country were the new variant. He said: ‘The sober fact is that this variant is probably already present in Europe to a very limited extent.’
UK Government scientists warned it was the most worrying variant ever seen and could make vaccines 40 per cent less effective even in a best case scenario. They did not rule out it being completley unrecognisable to current jabs.
But South African scientists tried to backpedal today saying it was ‘likely’ that vaccines still offered ‘high levels of protection’ against hospitalisations and deaths from the variant.
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.
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.
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
UK Health Security Agency scientists — who took over from Public Health England — said it had the ‘worst ever’ combination of mutations.
Dr Susan Hopkins, its chief medical adviser, warned the variant had a ‘highly complex’ set of mutations including changes that had not been seen before.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘If we look at those mutations, there’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.’
On the situation in South Africa, she said: ‘What we’re seeing in South Africa is that they were at a very, very low point with very low amount of cases being detected a day.
‘In a shorter period than two weeks, they have more than doubled their epidemiology picture, they are saying that the transmission rates, the R value that they have in Gauteng — around where this was first found — is now 2, which is really quite high.
‘We haven’t seen levels of transmission like that since right back at the beginning of the pandemic… So that would cause a major problem if you had that high transmission with this type of virus in a population where it may evade the immune responses that are already there.’
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.
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.
Dr Susan Hopkins from the UKHSA said the variant had ‘highly complex’ mutations including ones that hadn’t been seen before.
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.
Will my Christmas plans be cancelled?
Scientists have warned the mutant strain could affect people’s Christmas plans if it is imported into their countries.
Asked whether it could cause disruption over the festive period, UK vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn said: ‘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.’
Where has the variant been detected?
B.1.1.529 has been spotted in four countries and two continents less than a month after it emerged.
It was first spotted in Botswana on November 11 which now has four cases. Some 77 cases have also been declared in South Africa.
Hong Kong has identified two cases, one in a traveller who had recently returned from South Africa and another in the same quarantine facility. And Israel has spotted a case in a traveller who had recently returned from Malawi.
Malawi authorities are yet to detect a case of the mutant strain, but it has relatively poor surveillance for mutant strains of the virus.
The World Health Organization says overall there are around 100 cases so far.
How did the mutant strain emerge?
Scientists suggest the variant may have emerged during a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, such as someone suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can drag on for months because the body is unable to fight off the virus.
This give it time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defences and become more infectious. Scientists previously said the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant may have evolved in this way.
Which countries have imposed travel bans?
Britain, Italy and Germany have suspended travel from six African nations to slow the spread of the variant into their countries.
And in a growing sign of alarm, the European Union is also considering imposing restrictions on arrivals from Southern Africa.
Travel restrictions have been imposed on arrivals from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain was taking a ‘safety-first approach’ to delay the spread of the variant to its shores. And German ministers said the ‘last thing we need’ is another variant.
But South Africa has blasted the move as rushed and said there is no evidence that travel restrictions has previously stopped a variant spreading between countries.
What mutations does the variant have?
Scientists have sounded the alarm over the variant because of its ‘concerning constellation’ of mutations that likely make it ultra transmissible and better able to dodge vaccine-induced immunity.
It carries a number of mutations from the Beta variant, which sparked concern last year after it was found that this mutant strain was more vaccine resistant, and the more infectious Alpha and Delta variants, which were behind the second and third waves of the pandemic.
But UK scientists warn it also has a number of mutations that have not been seen before.
Have countries where it has been detected imposed further restrictions?
South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa will hold a meeting on Sunday to asses the risk posed by the newly detected variant to the country.
No further restrictions have been imposed within the country yet, but officials are urging people to consider wearing face masks, washing hands frequently, social distance, and avoid gatherings.
A Government spokesman said: ‘The virus has not been eradicated and vaccination protects us from serious illness, hospitalisation or death.’
What is the variant called?
The strain is known scientifically as B.1.1.529, but has not yet been given a name based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization are holding emergency meetings about the variant today, during which it is expected to be named. It could be called the ‘Nu’ variant.