Is new COVID variant in UK? Can it defeat vaccines? What we know so far about B.1.1.529 strain found in southern Africa

25 November 2021, 21:51 | Updated: 26 November 2021, 13:19

A new COVID variant first detected in South Africa is the "most worrying" yet, a leading health expert has said.

Scientists around the globe are concerned the "horrific" number of mutations could make it highly transmissible, more deadly and make vaccines less effective.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned it could "pose a substantial risk to public health" and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said the UK is taking a "safety-first approach" in imposing travel restrictions on South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

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Here's what we know so far about the B.1.1.529 variant.

Where was it first identified?

South African scientists sounded the alarm over the variant, which they fear is behind a spike in cases in some regions, including Gauteng province, which includes the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.

The number of infections rose sharply to more than 1,200 per day on Wednesday and 2,465 on Thursday, having previously been just over 200 per day.

Work is ongoing to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.

How is it different from the other variants?

The virus has been identified as having 30 different mutations already.

That is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent in the UK over the past few months.

Why does this matter?

The mutations could potentially make the variant more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination, although scientists are being cautious about the implications.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, told the BBC: "If you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it's a highly complex mutation, there's new ones we haven't seen before, so we don't know how they're going to interact in common."

She added: "It is the most worrying we've seen."

Mr Javid has told MPs early indications show the variant "may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it" and also impact the effectiveness of the antibody treatment Ronapreve.

Although it was not yet known if the variant was more severe, he said the number of mutations "does indicate there is a possibility that it might have a different impact on individuals should they get infected".

However, while experts acknowledge "partial immune escape is likely" they also believe vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death.

Is the variant already the UK?

No - or at least not that we know about yet.

The new variant has so far been found in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, and although no cases have been detected in the UK, experts say it could be.

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Does this mean Plan B and tighter restrictions like mask wearing?

Not plans yet.

The health secretary said the government was still following Plan A for managing COVID-19 winter.

But he warned that "if we need to go further, we will".

What is the World Health Organisation saying?

It classed it among one of its eight variants under monitoring (VUM) earlier this week, indicating it may pose a future risk.

Its technical working group is meeting again on Friday to discuss the latest developments.

The WHO may decide to upgrade it to a variant of concern (VOC) - on par with established variants like Delta, meaning it has "global public health significance" - and issue guidance to member countries.

It may also classify it a less serious variant of interest (VOI), which indicates for example that it may affect transmissibility or disease severity.