Highly mutated 'Nu' Covid strain found in South Africa - here's what you need to know

A woman receives a nasal swab, from a health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), to be tested for COVID-19 at the Fourways Life Hospital in Johannesburg (Getty Images)A woman receives a nasal swab, from a health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), to be tested for COVID-19 at the Fourways Life Hospital in Johannesburg (Getty Images)
A woman receives a nasal swab, from a health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), to be tested for COVID-19 at the Fourways Life Hospital in Johannesburg (Getty Images)

There are growing fears over a new “heavily mutated” Covid-19 variant found in South Africa, with the country being added to the UK’s ‘red list’, along with five other nations in the region.

These are Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

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The B.1.1.529 variant was first found in the country and, although it has not yet been found in Britain, there are warnings that the new variant may be more transmissible than the Delta strain and current vaccines may be less effective against it.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast today (26 November), he said that ministers acted “extremely fast” to ensure a “safety-first approach” to travel changes following an emergency meeting with chief medical officers.

He added: “This is agreed across all of the United Kingdom and we have acted fast, it’s rather like the mink variant from Denmark last year, where we acted very quickly, within hours and we’re then able, once we’ve checked it out, to release things somewhat.

“I hope that’s what this is, a pause rather than going backwards, but we can’t take risks when we see a variant which could well defeat the vaccine, or at least that’s the concern and we need just a bit of time to check that out.”

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What is the B.1.1.529 variant?

This variant was first found in South Africa, and has been dubbed “the worst one we’ve seen so far” by officials.

Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, described it as “very different” to other variants, such as the Delta variant.

He said that it has “an unusual constellation of mutations”, adding: “This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump on evolution and many more mutations that we expected.”

Compared to the Delta variant’s two mutations, the B.1.1.529 variant has 10.

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Is the B.1.1.529 variant more infectious than other strains?

Unfortunately, scientists believe that this new variant may be the most transmissible yet.

Prof Richard Lessells, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said: “They give us concern this virus might have enhanced transmissibility, enhanced ability to spread from person to person, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system.”

Will vaccines work against the B.1.2.529 variant?

Scientists have fears over this new strain because of the unpredictability of whether it will be able to evade immunity built up by vaccines or previous Covid-19 infections.

The concern comes after they found that the B.1.2.529 variant is extremely different to the original Covid-19 virus that emerged in Wuhan, China.

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Because of the drastically different make-up of the strain, it is unclear whether the vaccines will be able to fight the B.1.1.529 variant in the same way.

Has the B.1.1.529 variant been found in the UK?

As of yet, the strain has not been detected in the UK.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has confirmed that South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe have now all been placed on the UK’s travel ‘red list’.

Flights from these countries will be suspended from Friday (26 November).

This comes after concern over the rapid rise in cases in South Africa.

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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.

“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.

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“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.

“Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant. I’m concerned, of course, that’s one of the reasons we have taken this action today.”

Should we be worried?

With worries over this new variant, Javid said that the UK is prepared to deal with a new wave of cases.He said: “We’ve got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans – the so-called Plan B.

“But today’s announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa – it’s been detected in South Africa and Botswana – and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.”

This article was originally published on our sister title, NationalWorld.