Britain is to test travellers from South Africa for a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19 after officials said it is the “worst one we’ve seen so far”.
UK scientists sounded the alarm on Thursday night over the B.1.1.529 variant, which has the potential to evade immunity built up by vaccination or prior infection.
While no cases have been found in Britain, officials raised concern over a rapid rise in cases in South Africa – which is expected to be put on England’s red list for international travel imminently.
At the moment around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.
The variant has not yet been given the title “variant of concern” in the UK, but one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert said: “This is the worst variant we have seen so far.”
Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
The variant has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue.
A number of scientists have expressed serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.
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.”
Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The variant could eventually be given the moniker “Nu” – with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet.