- Vaccines may be less effective against new variant
- Variant has double the number of mutations than Delta
- Britain bans flights from six African countries
- Spike protein of B.1.1.529 dramatically different
Britain on Thursday said it was concerned by a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa that might make vaccines less effective and imperil efforts to fight the pandemic.
The UK Health Security Agency said the variant, which is called B.1.1.529, has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that Covid-19 vaccines are based on.
"This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility," UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said.
The variant was first identified at the start of this week, but Britain rushed to introduce travel restrictions on South Africa and five neighbouring countries, acting much more swiftly than with the currently dominant Delta variant.
"What we do know is there's a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant," Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters.
"And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective."
Britain announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 1200 GMT on Friday, and that returning British travellers from those destinations would have to quarantine.
Javid said more data on the variant was needed, but the travel restrictions were necessary as a precaution.
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 detected the new Covid-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.
The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said no cases of it had been detected in Britain.
Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said that B.1.1.529 had an "unprecedented" number of mutations in the spike protein and was driving a recent rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa.
"The government's move to restrict travel with South Africa is, therefore, prudent," he said.
"However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses."
Israel restricts travel to southern Africa over new Covid-19 variant
Israel announced on Thursday it was barring its citizens from travelling to southern Africa and banning the entry of foreigners from the region, citing the detection by South African scientists of a new Covid-19 variant.
South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to Israel's "red", or highest-risk, travel list that reflects coronavirus infection rates overseas.
Israelis are banned from travelling to countries on the "red" list, unless they receive special permission from Israel's health ministry.
In a statement announcing the measures, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said citizens of the seven southern African nations would not be eligible to enter Israel.
Israelis returning home from those countries would be required to spend between 7-14 days in a quarantine hotel after arrival.
The variant - called B.1.1.529 - has a "very unusual constellation" of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference in South Africa.
South Africa has confirmed around 100 specimens as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa.
Israel has recorded 1.3 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 8,000 dead since the pandemic began.
Around 57% of Israel's population of 9.4 million is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry.
A fourth wave of infections that hit Israel in June began subsiding in September. But over the past two weeks the "R", or reproduction rate of the virus, that had remained below one for two months, began climbing and has now crossed that threshold, indicating the virus could again be spreading exponentially.
Disclaimer: The headline has been modified.