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Everest climbers could have spread Nepal Covid variant across the world

Sources said the mutant strain has been detected in more than 20 Britons and is closely related to the Indian variant currently dominant in the UK

A coronavirus variant that is being linked to Nepal could have been spread by climbers travelling home from Mount Everest, experts say.

As many as 13 passengers flying from Nepal to Japan were infected with the new mutant strain that combines mutations from the Indian and South African variants. 

At least 20 cases have been spotted in the UK, MailOnline revealed today, with the strain first spotted on April 24 according to surveillance data. Cases were also detected in the US, India and Portugal. 

Its mutations mean scientists fear it could be more infectious, and more resistant to vaccines. 

Matt Hancock said yesterday Britain is preparing to buy millions of tweaked doses of the AstraZeneca jab that target the South African variant.

SAGE scientists think it makes jabs at least 30 per cent less effective against infections, but its impact on severe disease is not known.

Ministers sparked surge testing in postcode areas where the strain was detected, to root out every last case.

At least one case has been spotted in Portugal, which sources say will move to the ‘amber’ list today sparking holiday misery across the country.

Only one case of the variant has been recorded in Nepal so far, but the country carries out very little surveillance for mutant strains. The UK has placed Nepal and India on its ‘red’ list, and the US is on its ‘amber’ list.

Public Health England will likely announce its arrival in the UK later today when it updates its weekly variant report.

The strain is a mutated version of the Indian variant currently dominant in the UK — B.1.617.2 — but also carries the K417N mutation spotted on the South African variant — B.1.351 — which scientists say could make jabs less effective. The new mutant strain has been named Delta+K417N.

Nepal faced its second wave of the pandemic in May, driven by imports of the Indian variant after it kept its borders open.

There have been several Covid outbreaks in camps at Mount Everest, with more than 100 people reported infected at a base camp in May. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, told MailOnline it was ‘entirely possible’ the mutant strain was being spread by travellers. 

‘Anywhere travellers go is a likely source of transmission across the world,’ he said. ‘It seems to me that the Himalayan region is for Nepal is a tourism hotspot.’ 

Nepal's Covid cases peaked at more than 9,000 a day on May 12, before dropping to 4,500 (307.6 cases per million people to 174.5 per million). The new variant believed to be linked to Nepal, is thought to have emerged over the last few months

Nepal’s Covid cases peaked at more than 9,000 a day on May 12, before dropping to 4,500 (307.6 cases per million people to 174.5 per million). The new variant believed to be linked to Nepal, is thought to have emerged over the last few months

Nepal's Covid death rate peaked at an average of 200 per day on May 19, before falling to 100 on June 2(6.89 deaths per million people to 3.48 per million)

Nepal’s Covid death rate peaked at an average of 200 per day on May 19, before falling to 100 on June 2(6.89 deaths per million people to 3.48 per million) 

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May. Pictured: Health workers carry Ramjee Kunwar, 65, a Covid patient from a helicopter to an ambulance after being airlifted from Pokhara to Kathmandu

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May. Pictured: Health workers carry Ramjee Kunwar, 65, a Covid patient from a helicopter to an ambulance after being airlifted from Pokhara to Kathmandu

Hundreds queued to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2019. Tourism to the peak is a major source of revenue for the Nepalese authorities

Hundreds queued to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2019. Tourism to the peak is a major source of revenue for the Nepalese authorities

The World Health Organization said it was 'not aware' of any new strain circulating in Nepal

The World Health Organization said it was ‘not aware’ of any new strain circulating in Nepal

Global warning: Is your chosen holiday destination likely to go up or down the risk list?

Global warning: Is your chosen holiday destination likely to go up or down the risk list?

Covid outbreaks have been reported at the base camp for Mount Everest — the highest mountain in the world — with at least 100 climbers and guides testing positive last month. 

Visitors told the Telegraph there were almost daily evacuations from the camp of people who had caught the virus. 

And Austrian Lukas Furtenbach — who takes tour groups to the mountain  — said he could hear people coughing in their tents, and saw others who looked unwell.

The outbreak at the mountain coincided with Nepal’s second wave of the pandemic, which struck in May and was driven by the Indian variant.

Nepal gave out about 300 licences to climb the mountain this year, with visitors told to self-isolate for three days and take a Covid test before arriving at base camp.

What do we know about the ‘Nepal variant’? 

Real name: Delta+K417N

When and where was it discovered?

It is thought to have emerged over the last few months in Nepal.

It has been linked to travel from the country, but has only been spotted once there.

Experts point out, however, that Nepal does very little sequencing for mutant strains of the virus. 

What mutations does it have?

The variant is the same as the B.1.617.2 Indian variant but also carries the K417N mutation.

This is also present on the South African variant — B.1.351 — and experts say makes vaccines less effective.  

Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?

The mutant variant is thought to be more infectious and better at evading vaccines than the original virus.

It is a mutated version of the Indian variant — the most transmissible virus in the world.

And it carries the K417N mutation on the South African variant, which experts allows it to evade vaccines.

Some scientists have, however, called for calm. 

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said: ‘We need to change our attitude to variants and not panic every time a new variant is identified.

‘Virus variants are generated by every one who is infected and this will continue as more people are infected around the world.’

How deadly is it?

It is not clear whether the mutant strain is more deadly, but it is being watched closely by scientists.

Studies suggest the Indian variant is not more deadly than the original virus.

How many cases have been detected in the UK?

Sources told MailOnline more than 20 cases have been identified in the country.

But tour operators say enforcement of the rules has been lax, and only around half of the 43 groups visiting the mountain were tested for the virus.

The Mount Everest climbing season is between March and May. So many people attempted to reach the peak in 2019 that there was a traffic jam up the mountain. Tourism to the peak is a major source of revenue for local authorities.

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, a director at the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centre the Wellcome Sanger Institute, revealed today that the strain had been spotted in Japanese travellers returning from Nepal.

‘There have been 91 sequences observed of the (new variant), with an additional mutation: K417N,’ he said.

‘This mutation is present in B.1.351 / Beta, and is believed to be part of why that variant is less well neutralised by vaccines.  

‘Because of this possibility, and because Delta appears more transmissible than Beta, scientists are monitoring it carefully.

‘This Delta+K417N has been seen in numerous countries, including the UK, Portugal, the USA, and India. 

‘It has also been observed once in Nepal (which does very little sequencing), and 14 times in Japan, of which 13 are samples from airport quarantine from travellers from Nepal.’

A member of the Government’s SAGE committee said last night officials should not be overly concerned. He added: ‘There are thousands of variants. This is a virus that is changing all the time.’

And Tory peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, chairman of the Airport Operators’ Association, said: ‘How many more variants have we got to be worried about? What matters is data and the success of our vaccination programme.’

The Indian variant appears to be prone to mutating and there are already three versions of it – Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2) and Kappa (B.1.617.1).

The B.1.617.2 variant is currently dominant in the UK – accounting for roughly three in four cases – and appears to be the most transmissible.

Vaccines are highly effective against it, PHE’s analysis has shown, with a similar efficacy against symptomatic illness as the Kent strain following two doses.

Sources said the new variant – believed to have emerged in neighbouring Nepal – has acquired some mutations which may make it less responsive to antibodies, a key part of the immune response.

But Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, called for calm over new variants.

He told MailOnline: ‘We need to change our attitude to variants and not panic every time a new variant is identified.

‘Virus variants are generated by every one who is infected and this will continue as more people are infected around the world. 

‘The more the virus replicates in more people the greater the likelihood that variants will be generated that could be more infectious and also more resistant to current vaccines. 

‘Vaccination significantly reduces the risk of infection and will prevent new variants from being generated.’ 

Twelve more lives were also lost to the virus today — rising a third on last Wednesday's figure — after yesterday's recording of zero bolstered calls for No10 to stick with its roadmap

Twelve more lives were also lost to the virus today — rising a third on last Wednesday’s figure — after yesterday’s recording of zero bolstered calls for No10 to stick with its roadmap

Covid cases jumped by more than 36 per cent in a week today, the eighth day in a row they have been above 3,000 and the second day in less than a week they have reached more than 4,000

Covid cases jumped by more than 36 per cent in a week today, the eighth day in a row they have been above 3,000 and the second day in less than a week they have reached more than 4,000

Dr Clarke echoed those comments. He told this website: ‘Over the next few years we’re going to keep getting variants cropping up over the next few years and people are going to worry about their sensitivity to vaccines.

HOLIDAY NIGHTMARE AS PORTUGAL COMES OFF GREEN LIST 

Holidaymakers face a series of blows today as it was revealed that no countries will be added to the UK’s ‘green list’ today – and Portugal is set to be removed.

Ministers have finalised changes to the travel categories due to be announced this afternoon, with the hopes of millions of Britons hanging on the decisions.

MailOnline understands that no countries will be added to the lowest bracket of restrictions, dashing hopes that places such as Malta, Jamaica and Grenada could be added to the roster.

And Portugal – the only major destination currently on the green list – is expected to fall victim to the overhaul, after cases saw a worrying rise.

Football fans celebrating Sporting Lisbon’s title win and Chelsea and Manchester City supporters attending the Champions League final in Porto have been identified as potential causes.

Boris Johnson also hinted yesterday that more countries could be added to the ‘red list’ that means travellers must go into quarantine hotels. They are thought to be Egypt, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Bahrain, Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago and Afghanistan.

It comes amid alarm that a coronavirus variant linked to Nepal could pose a fresh threat to the escape from lockdown.

At least 20 cases of the strain, which combines mutations from the Indian and South African versions, have been spotted in the UK. And a case has been identified in Portugal – which does far less genomic screening than Britain.

Meanwhile, Labour has renewed demands for the ‘amber list’ to be scrapped to prevent mutant strains from being imported.

And in another setback for travellers the EU has again delayed a decision on whether the UK will be added to its ‘white list’ of safe countries from which leisure travel is welcome.

‘But the truth is the weakening of vaccines will be incremental and no one single variant will blow them out of the water. So I think we’re probably being a bit over-cautious.’ 

The WHO said in a Twitter post this morning it ‘is not aware of any new variant of SARS-CoV-2 being detected in Nepal,’ they said on twitter.

‘The three confirmed variants in circulation are: Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2) and Kappa (B.1.617.1). The predominant variant currently in circulation in Nepal is Delta (B.1.617.2).’ 

The post was shared by Dr Rajesh Pandav, the WHO’s representative for Nepal.

Nepal’s health minister Mr Tripathi told CNN that media reports about the new Covid variant were ‘completely false’. 

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. 

Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May.

It is thought that the Indian variant is behind the outbreak there and to what extent the new strain has played remains unknown.

Last night, even government advisers said the UK could not keep panicking every time a new variant emerges.

Professor Sir John Bell said ministers should avoid ‘scampering down a rabbit hole’ when new strains are detected, and instead focus on hospitalisations, serious disease and deaths.

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month.

Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May.

 Nepal’s second wave has been driven by the spread of the B.1.167 variant from neighbouring India. But last night scientists warned that another variant of Covid-19 has since been identified.

Concern among ministers about the strain is one of the main reasons for not putting more holiday destinations on today’s updated green list. They are also concerned about the slower pace of the vaccine rollout across Europe. Even though cases are falling in many European countries, they are far behind Britain’s vaccine drive.

A lack of genome sequencing for detecting new variants in some European countries, a key criteria for making the green list, is also a concern. After meeting the UK’s ambassador to Spain yesterday, Spanish hospitality official Antonio Mayor said: ‘The impression I was left with was that there was a good chance the Balearic Islands could be included on the next green list, but not necessarily the Canary Islands.

‘What was made clear at the meeting is that mainland Spain is not going to be put on the next green list that’s announced.

‘We hope it will be before but we’re looking now at July 20 as the sort of date when things might change. If that does happen the tour operators are going to need at least a fortnight to normalise operations which takes us into the start of August.’

Mr Johnson raised the prospect of more countries being moved from green to amber or red. He said: ‘We’ve got to continue to put countries on the red list, on the amber list, when that is necessary and I want you to know we will have no hesitation in moving countries from the green list to the amber list, to the red list, if we have to do so.

‘The priority is to continue the vaccine rollout to protect the people of this country.’

Last night, MPs and industry expressed alarm at the prospect of foreign summer holidays slipping away. Tory MP Henry Smith, chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation group of MPs, and whose constituency includes Gatwick, said: ‘After a devastating year for our aviation, travel and tourism industries, this will come as a hammer blow to an industry that is close to breaking point.

‘Far from benefiting from a vaccine dividend, this reinforces that our overly cautious approach to international travel is a restart in name only.

‘We must ensure that we avoid a summer shutdown that will cause irreversible damage to businesses and communities who rely on international travel.’

After today, the green list – which currently contains 12 countries – will not be reviewed until the week running up to June 28. If there is not a significant expansion then, it will be July 19 or 20 before there is another chance for more destinations to make it on to the list.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk