South Africa sees deadly Covid variant spread – but is the Botswana variant in the UK?

A new coronavirus variant has seen South Africa placed back on the UK’s red travel list with fears the variant has the potential to thwart immunity from vaccines or previous infections. The B.1.1.529 Covid variant – also known as the Botswana variant – has only been seen in a handful of cases so far, but the potential to evade immunity has seen it dubbed the “worst we’ve seen so far” by officials.

Cases have increased quickly across South Africa, prompting the UK Government to place the country back on the red travel list.

Approximately 500 to 700 people arrive in the UK from South Africa each day, however with Christmas nearing this number is expected to grow.

Anyone who has arrived in the UK from South Africa over the past 10 days will be invited to take a Covid test.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday on Friday.

He said all six countries will be added to the red list, and from 4am on Sunday anyone arriving to the UK from those countries will be required to isolate in hotels.

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The Botswana variant – which could be given the name Nu – is believed to be the most mutated version of the virus as yet.

The strain carries 32 mutations and many of these are highly transmissible and possibly vaccine-resistant.

One senior scientist said: “One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern.”

The lack of knowledge about the variant and its potential threats is also causing concern.

Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa said at a press conference: “There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant.

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“The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”

Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.

Mr Javid said the new variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and added: “The vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.

Christmas is fast approaching and with it the increase of travellers heading to the UK to spend the Christmas season with friends and family – perhaps prompting the swift action from the Government.

Speaking on Thursday night the Health Secretary 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.

“Now to be clear, we have not detected any of this new variant in the UK at this point in time.

“But we’ve always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress that we have made.

“So what we will be doing is from midday tomorrow we will be suspending all flights from six, southern African countries and we will add in those countries to the travel red list.

“Those countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

“We will be requiring anyone that arrives from those countries from 4am on Sunday to quarantine in hotels.

“If anyone arrives before then they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight.

“If anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests.”