The new ‘worst ever’ Botswana Covid variant causing international alarm has been detected in Israel today, as the ultra-infectious and vaccine resistant strain spreads to four countries in two weeks.
Israel’s health ministry said the patient tested positive for B.1.1.529 after returning from Malawi, suggesting it is already widespread on continental Africa. There are two other suspected cases in Israel.
Germany and Italy joined Britain in suspending travel from South Africa today and, in a sign of growing alarm, the European Union is also proposing prohibiting travel from the country and its neighbours.
South Africa’s infection rate spiked 93 per cent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is driving the surge. Local scientists say it has likely spread to all the country’s nine provinces, but there is yet to be a surge in hospitalisations in epicentre Johannesburg.
The new case is the third outside of Africa after two were spotted in Hong Kong. The first was in a traveller who had recently returned from South Africa and a second has now been spotted in the same quarantine hotel.
In response, the UK has suspended all travel from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from midday and will trace everyone who has come into Britain from these countries in past 10 days.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the UK was taking a ‘safety-first approach’ and acting quickly to slow down its entry into the country.
Experts warn Britons now need to steel themselves for Christmas disruption with the ‘possibility of a change in the restrictions’. No cases have been spotted in the country so far.
The super mutant which has 30 mutations — the most ever and twice as many as delta — caused cases in South Africa to spike 93 per cent in a day.
Infections have mostly been detected in young people and in a glimmer of hope hospitalisations are yet to rise — but admissions are a lagging indicator.
South Africa has spotted 77 cases so far but its scientists warn it may have already spread to most of Southern Africa.
It has a ‘concerning constellation’ of mutations that scientists fear could make it ultra infectious and better able to dodge vaccine-induced immunity compared to Delta and other variants.
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
Mr Shapps told Sky News the UK was acting immediately to ‘give us a bit of time’ for scientists to work out whether this variant is of ‘significant concern’.
He added: ‘We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.’
Germany and Italy on Friday joined Britain in banning most travel from South Africa today as governments scramble to prevent the spread of a new Covid variant with a large number of mutations.
In a sign of the growing alarm, the European Union on separately proposed prohibiting travel from southern Africa.
The EU’s executive ‘will propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529’, EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted.
Germany’s new travel restrictions, starting Friday night, will affect South Africa and ‘probably neighbouring nations’, Spahn said, with only German nationals allowed entry.
They must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival even if vaccinated. In Britain they must quarantine for 11 days in Government hotels for about £2,800.
‘The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,’ Spahn said, with Germany in the grip of a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.
In Rome, the government on Friday announced it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini in the past fortnight.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, ‘and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution’.
South Africa sharply condemned Britain’s decision.
‘Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,’ the foreign ministry said in a statement.
UK Health Security Agency scientists — who took over from Public Health England — said it had the ‘worst ever’ combination of mutations.
South African experts said on one part of its spike protein — which the virus uses to invade cells — it had ten mutations. For comparison, the Beta variant has three and Delta has two in the same location.
Israel is the first country to follow the UK and suspend all travel from the six Southern African nations. There are no plans yet to suspend travel from Malawi.
UKHSA scientists have labelled it a ‘variant under investigation’. The World Health Organization will today hold an emergency meeting on the mutant strain.
Although concerns have been raised over the variant, nothing is known about its virulence and whether those who catch it are more likely to become seriously ill and die. Scientists are working to reveal this information in the coming days.
What impact might it have on vaccines?
Scientists have raised concern that the super Botswana Covid variant may be better able to dodge vaccine-induced immunity than all previous strains — including Delta.
UK Health Security Agency scientists say it is the ‘worst ever’. It combines mutations previously seen on the Beta variant, which sparked concern last year as it was thought to be more vaccine resistant, and those on the more transmissible Alpha strain that was behind the second wave.
Scientists warn it is ‘plausible’ that the mutant variant is spreading quickly because it is better able to infect people who have immunity either from vaccines or previous infection.
In South Africa where it is spreading most people already have immunity from previous infection. Some 40 per cent have also received two doses of the Covid jab.
But despite the concern lab tests are yet to confirm that the variant is better able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity than other mutant strains.
Very little is known about its virulence and whether someone who catches the mutant strain is more likely to end up in hospital or dying from the disease.
Could it trigger another lockdown?
There are no suggestions that it could trigger another lockdown in the UK at this stage.
Officials have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and Botswana — where it has been detected — and their neighbours Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Flights are suspended from these countries to England until Sunday, as hundreds of hotel rooms are prepared for mandatory quarantine.
UK experts say the move is ‘prudent’ and that it is likely to delay the arrival of the mutant strain in the country by weeks or months. No cases have been spotted on British shores so far.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said it was not yet clear whether this could affect Christmas.
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.’
He added: ‘There are a number of things going on now to understand this, to look for it, to trace it, to hopefully stamp it out if it is already here.’