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LONDON, Nov. 25 (Reuters) – Britain said on Thursday it was concerned about a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa that could make vaccines less effective and jeopardize efforts to fight the pandemic.
The UK Health Security Agency said the variant, dubbed B.1.1.529, has a spike protein that is dramatically different from that found in the original coronavirus on which COVID-19 vaccines are based.
“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and susceptibility to vaccines,” said UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries.
The variant was first identified early this week, but Britain rushed to introduce travel restrictions for South Africa and five neighboring countries, much faster than with the currently dominant Delta variant.
“What we do know is that there is a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations we have seen in the Delta variant,” Health Minister Sajid Javid told broadcasters.
“And that would indicate that it may be more transmissible and that the current vaccines we have may be less effective.”
Britain has announced it will temporarily ban flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini on Friday from 1200 GMT, and that returning British travelers from those destinations will be quarantined.
Javid said more data on the variant was needed, but the precautionary travel restrictions were needed.
Scientists said lab studies were needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy.
Earlier on Thursday, South African scientists said they had discovered the new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications. read more
The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said no cases of it have been discovered in Britain.
Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London, said B.1.1,529 had an “unprecedented” number of mutations in the spike protein and caused a recent rapid increase in cases in South Africa.
“The government’s move to limit travel to South Africa is therefore sensible,” he said.
“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1,529 may be more transmissible or resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to provide a science-based assessment of the risk.”
Reporting by Alistair Smout and William Schomberg; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Simao
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