Six countries have been added to the UK’s red list after UK scientists said they were concerned about a new type of coronavirus.
The B.1.1.529 variant was first detected in cases in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong.
People who have recently been to South Africa – where most types have been found so far – and have returned to the UK are being contacted for testing to see if they have contracted it overseas.
But how is this new variant different from the previous version and how dangerous is it?
Here’s everything you need to know.
When did it first appear?
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on 23 November after samples from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana were uploaded to a coronavirus tracking website. A total of 59 samples have been uploaded on the website so far.
Three samples are from Hong Kong, three are from Botswana and the rest are from South Africa.
Outlining South Africa’s position, a senior scientist said: “If we look at the results up to a week ago, in many areas less than 1% of people were testing positive. It’s gone up 6% very dramatically in some parts over the past few days, and that makes me worry about people coming in pretty quickly. [in the UK] Now.”
Are there any cases in the UK?
Currently, there is no case in the UK. People who have recently arrived in the UK from South Africa in the last 10 days will be invited to take the test.
Have any of these countries been put on the Red List?
Yes. Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from Friday afternoon and all six countries will be added to the red list.
How is it different from other variants?
Despite being tracked only for the past three days, the virus has already been identified as having 30 different mutations. By comparison, it’s twice as much as the Delta version, which has been the most prominent version in the UK over the past few months.
Mutations include features seen in all other variants, but also traits that have not been observed before.
Will vaccines protect people from this?
It is too early to say that. Mutations could potentially make the variant more transmissible and evade the protection offered by prior infection or vaccination.
A senior scientist has said: “One of our major concerns is that this virus spike protein is so dramatically different from the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, this is a major cause for concern.”
Is this classified as an “anxiety type”?
Not yet by UK scientists, as they do not have sufficient evidence on the level of its transmittance, however, some have said they are concerned.
Ravi Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: “There are signs of a cumulative mutation in B.126.96.36.1999 indicating that it has emerged in a chronic infection.
“B.1.1.529 is certainly of significant concern based on the mutation present. Many have been shown to affect binding by neutralizing antibodies, and some are known to increase the ability of the virus to enter cells or fuse them together to allow cell-cell spread. “
Professor Ivan Birney, Deputy Director General of EMBL and Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) of EMBL, said: “Early evidence from genomic surveillance in South Africa suggests that B.188.8.131.529 is a serious cause for concern. African surveillance and epidemiology groups should be commended for their timely data collection, analysis and transparency.”
This is known as the “version under surveillance,” which means scientists believe it may pose a risk in the future, but its implications are unclear.
How concerned should we be about this type?
Scientists in the UK are eager to obtain live virus cultures so it can be investigated, but this takes time. It can take at least seven to 10 days for enough virus to develop that can be shared with other scientists so they can study how it mutates and changes.
Officials will now also have to wait for the data to come from South Africa. They expect the earliest evidence to come in two to three weeks, but it could be as long as four to six weeks.
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