The UK is facing fears that a new Covid super-mutant variant has emerged. It was discovered in an HIV patient from Africa. This version, which could lead to jabs being much less effective, may be the one most likely to have arisen.
Scientists think that the mutations are evidence of a severe immunocompromised person, or an undiagnosed individual with AIDS.
There are more than 30 possible mutations that can be found in this strain, which gives it the transmission potential of the Delta strain currently dominant and also the ability to escape from vaccines like the South African Beta variant.
Experts fear the new variant — called B.1.1.529 — will make the vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective, because it is so well equipped to dodge the protection they provide.
Britons have been put on alert that there could be a Christmas lockdown, with one of No10’s vaccine advisers warning ‘we all need to be ready’ for restrictions to be reimposed.
We have everything that we know to date about the variant.
Why is this so troubling?
Scientists are alarmed by how many mutations the strain carries, although not much else is known.
The variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain. These mutations made this variant one of the most dangerous.
Experts worry that vaccines will be less effective if the viruses are changed.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein. Current vaccines cause the body’s recognition of older viruses by triggering the production of spike proteins.
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
You can also find mutations to make it more spreadable.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalisations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What will it mean for Christmas in the UK
Experts say it could take weeks before they can determine how dangerous the new variant is. It is unclear what additional steps may be required.
The government has so far only added six countries on the red list.
Professor Adam Finn is a member the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. He said, however that no new restrictions could be ruled.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “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.”
Which variant has been found so far?
It has been detected in South Africa and Botswana as well as Hong Kong, Israel, and Israel.
Belgian health officials confirmed that the country is currently experiencing two possible cases of the virus.
Most cases were detected in Gauteng (a north-east South African province).
Hong Kong uploaded the first case to an international variant databank. It was then spotted by someone who had traveled from South Africa to find it.
There have not been any cases in the UK. However, scientists don’t sequence all positive Covid samples in the UK. Not everyone who gets the virus will be tested.
It is possible that there are people living with this variant in Britain.
What’s the UK doing to combat this variant?
Six countries were added to the red-list by Health Secretary last night, starting at noon on Friday 26 November.
These countries are red-listed: South Africa Botswana Eswatini Lesotho Namibia Zimbabwe and Botswana. These countries are prohibited from flying direct to the UK.
Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anybody arriving in these countries after Sunday 4 am must be kept for 10 days at a quarantine hotel. They will also need to take the Covid test within the first day and another one on day 8.
Which mutations can the variant be subject to?
Botswana’s variant has mutations K417N & E484A, which are very similar to the South African “Beta” variant. These made it easier to avoid vaccinations.
However, it has N440K (on Delta) and S477N (on the New York variant), which also have been linked to antibody escape.
It also contains mutations P681H (rarely seen together) and N679K, which could give it even more resistance to jabs.
N501Y is a mutation that increases the transmissibility of viruses and has been previously observed on Beta, the Kent Alpha’ variant, and Beta.
It also has Q478K and Q496S mutations. However, their significance is still not clear.
Can I feel protected by a booster?
Scientists warn that the vaccines will be 40% less effective due to the new strain.
However, they stated that the mutations make it all the more critical to have a booster jab as soon people can be eligible.
Neutralizing antibodies are produced by vaccines, and they provide the greatest protection against new strains. Experts agree that the greater the number of antibodies, the better.
Is this the name of the variant?
Although the strain has been scientifically named B.1.1.529 by scientists, it is not yet given a name that uses letters from the Greek alphabet.
Alpha, Beta and Delta are the variants that have been given official names so far.
The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting today to discuss this variant. They are also expected to name it. It could be called the ‘Nu’ variant.