New Covid variant: Will the vaccine work against it and why is it known as the 'worst ever'?
A NEW Covid variant threatens the battle against the virus and is “deeply concerning” scientists.
Ministers have moved rapidly to try and keep it out of the UK, but there is a possibility the suspected fast-spreading strain has already arrived.
The variant is scientifically called B.1.1.529 and has only been recognised in the past couple of days.
It would be assigned the name “Nu” by the World Health Organization if it decides the strain is a “Variant of Concern”.
The bulk of infections are in South Africa, which has seen a dramatic spike in Covid cases.
It has the potential to change the course of the pandemic due to its characteristics. But there is a lot scientists do not know about it.
So, what do we know?
Why is it the worst ever?
A number of experts have said this is a very concerning variant.
Prof Ewan Birney, Deputy Director General of European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said: “Early evidence from genomic surveillance in South Africa suggests that B.1.1.529 is a serious cause for concern."
The strain has double the mutations of Delta, which grew to world dominance due to the fact it was so fast spreading.
Prof Sharon Peacock, Director of COG-UK Genomics UK Consortium, said initial observations suggest the variant can "outcompete Delta – the ‘fittest’ variant we have seen to date".
She said the concerns were how fast cases had grown and the fact the variant had so many mutations, some of which are unknown to scientists.
When did it first appear?
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23.
Samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
How many cases are there?
Less than 100 cases in total have been detected so far in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
While there aren’t many cases as of yet, it’s the speed at which they have grown that are concerning.
Are there any cases in the UK?
Currently, there are no cases in the UK, officials including the Health Secretary Sajid Javid have confirmed.
But Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, said it was "always possible" the variant had reached the UK.
Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme if it was in the UK, she said: "It's always possible, we have no cases identified whatsoever yet."
Does it spread faster?
Scientists say that by looking at the situation in South Africa, this strain appears to spread faster than Delta – but there are no conclusions yet.
Mr Javid said: “The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.”
Dr Hopkins said the R rate in the Gauteng province of South Africa, where the variant has clustered, had jumped to 2.
She said it was "really quite high" and similar to what would have been in the UK before the first lockdown in March 2020.
Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme the variant "looks like it spreads more quickly but we do not know that".
Will vaccines work against it?
It’s too early to say, but experts fear it could weaken vaccine efficacy by up to 40 per cent.
That estimate comes from comparing it to the Beta variant, which originated in South Africa in December 2020 and had some antibody dodging mutations.
Prof Naismith the new variant will "almost certainly" make the vaccines less effective.
Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant
Prof Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.
“There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.
“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.”
Should we be concerned?
Scientists are “deeply concerned” about this variant, Mr Javid said.
Dr Hopskins said: “It is the most worrying [variant] we’ve seen.”
Prof Naismith said despite the "bad news" it is "not doomsday" as the UK has got better at controlling the virus.
Prof Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director, UCL Genetics Institute, UCL, said: “Scientists and politicians should try to keep a cool head, and I can see no benefit in the UK public being alarmed.”
How is it different from the other variants?
Despite only being tracked for the past three days, the virus has been identified as having 50 different mutations, of which 30 are in the spike protein.
By comparison, that is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has become world-dominant.
Mutations are changes in the viruses’ genetic makeup that make it behave differently. Sometimes the changes have no impact, but other times it gives the virus an advantage.
The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
It has mutations K417N, E484A, N440K and S477N that are linked to those in previous strains that were able to dodge vaccines.
It also has the mutation N501Y that makes viruses more transmissible and was previously seen on the fast-spreading Alpha variant.
Has it been classed as a “variant of concern”?
Not yet by UK scientists as they do not have enough evidence on its levels of transmissibility, however, some have said they are concerned.
It is known as a “variant under monitoring”, meaning scientists believe it may pose a future risk, but its impact is unclear.
Prof Balloux believes it could be a "variant of concern" under the WHO by the end of the week.
Where did it come from?
Experts say the variant may have evolved in a chronically sick person.
This is how the Alpha variant, first seen in Kent at the end of 2020, was suspected to have developed, too.
Prof Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has said: “B.1.1.529 has signatures of cumulative mutation indicating that it emerged in a chronic infection.”
When will we have more answers?
Scientists in the UK are eager to acquire live virus cultures so it can be examined closely.
But this takes time and it could be “weeks” before we find out its impact on vaccines, Dr Hopkins said.
It can take seven to 10 days at least to grow enough virus that can be shared with other scientists so they can study how it mutates and changes.
Officials will now also have to wait for data to come from South Africa.
The earliest they are expecting evidence to come through is two to three weeks, but it could be as long as four to six weeks.
What countries are on the red list?
Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday on Friday.
All six countries will be added to the red list.
People who arrive from those nations from 4am on Sunday will have to quarantine at a government-approved hotel and quarantine for 10 days and take PCR Covid tests.
Before then, people must quarantine at home for 10 and get PCR tests.
From midday on Friday 26 November, non-UK and Irish who have visited the nations in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England.
Read more on the travel rules here.
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