New COVID variant 'May Pose Substantial Risk': Health Secretary

Peter Russell

November 26, 2021

Six African countries have been added to the UK's travel 'red list' following the discovery of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that experts said might be more transmissible and had the potential to reduce the effectiveness of current COVID vaccines.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) listed B.1.1.529 as a variant under investigation with very high priority – the only variant with such a designation.

Significant Mutations

The variant has around 50 mutations, 30 of which are in the spike protein.

Officials say these mutations are "significant" and, pending further investigation, could be found to "change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines, treatments, and transmissibility”.

No cases have been detected in the UK, and the Government said it was imposing travel restrictions as a precautionary measure.

In a statement to MPs earlier, Sajid Javid, England's Health Secretary, said it was a "fast-moving situation" and subject to "a high degree of uncertainty". However, the Government was concerned that the new variant "may pose substantial risk to public health", as it was "highly likely that it has now spread to other countries".

From midday, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and Namibia were added to the UK's travel red list. Direct flights from all six countries have been banned until Sunday pending hotel quarantine arrangements.

Mr Javid said there were "very live" discussions over whether to add more countries to the red list.

The first genomes of the B.1.1.529 variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database on November 22.

At a briefing hosted yesterday by South Africa's health ministry, epidemiologist Tulio De Oliveira said 77 cases had been detected in South Africa, 4 in Botswana, and 1 in Hong Kong involving a traveller from South Africa.

The new variant ''is a reason for concern", he said.

Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, said: "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.

"The results of these investigations will determine what public health actions may limit the impact of B.1.1.529."

A 'Red Flag'

Commenting on the development for the Science Media Centre, Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said the variant contained several mutations that were "consistent with enhanced transmissibility" and that "mutations are also present that have been associated in other variants with immune evasion".

She added: "Rapid spread in South Africa could be due to super-spreader events or other factors.  But there are sufficient red flags to assume the worst rather than hope for the best – and take a precautionary approach."

Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology at University College London, said "we can confidently predict B.1.1.529 may partly bypass immunisation provided by vaccination and prior infection", but that "any prediction about its transmissibility and virulence feels premature".

The emergence of B.1.1.529 "could well represent another setback after the emergence and global spread of the alpha and delta variants", he added.

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