Johannesburg: Six southern African countries were added to the UK’s travel red list on Friday after the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 — red-flagged by health experts as highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response — was first detected in South Africa earlier this week.

The countries that have now been added to the UK’s Red List include South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, as well as Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), both of which are landlocked within South Africa.

The flights from these countries will be temporarily suspended from noon on Friday.

However, travellers arriving from any of the six southern African nations to the UK on Friday will have to quarantine for 10 days in a government-approved hotel, according to the slew of protocols announced.

The latest variant is the most heavily mutated version discovered so far. First identified in South Africa at the start of this week, the strain has already spread to neighbouring countries, including Botswana, where it has been reportedly detected in fully vaccinated people.

The new variant has been red-flagged by scientists over an alarmingly high number of spike mutations that might make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase its transmissibility and lead to more severe COVID-19 symptoms.

The World Health Organisation said on Thursday that it was closely monitoring the new variant, and will hold a special meeting to discuss if this heavily mutated strain will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern.

“SA is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now. From noon tomorrow (Friday) six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine,” UK Secretary of State Health and Social Care Sajid Javid tweeted on Thursday.

Javid said that while more data was needed, the UK was taking this step as a precautionary measure.

The UK Health Security Agency has designated the B.1.1.529 variant as a new variant under investigation.’

The move comes weeks after flights between South Africa and the UK had resumed following hectic lobbying by the South African government.

In October, South Africa had remained on the UK government’s Red List, when it had introduced a revised system of travel restrictions and requirements, which distinguished between vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers.

The UK is one of the largest contributors to the tourism sector in South Africa.

During an urgently convened media conference on Thursday, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla expressed concern about the rapid rise in COVID-19 infections over the past week, especially in the economic hub of Gauteng province.

Prof Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP), said that the new variant had also been detected in neighbouring Botswana and in far away Hong Kong.

So far, 59 confirmed cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.

“This variant has a very high number of mutations, which is concerning for its predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” De Oliveira said, before adding, “Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest that the variant has spread rapidly in Gauteng province and might also be present in most of the other eight provinces of South Africa.”

We can make some predictions about the impact of mutations in this variant, but the full significance is uncertain and the vaccines remain the critical tool to protect us, he explained.

De Oliveira said they were seeing a very unusual constellation of mutations.

(There are) multiple mutations across the SARS-Cov-2 genome, with more than 30 mutations. This is very, very different from all the earlier mutations or the variants of concern. Some mutations are well characterised with known phenotypic impact affecting transmissibility and immune evasion, but many others have been rarely observed until now and are not well characterised, so the full significance is still uncertain, he opined.

Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert at KRISP, said, “There was concern about how the mutations in the new variant might affect how well the virus is neutralised.”

They give us concern that this might give the virus enhanced transmissibility, so an ability to spread from person to person and also potentially to get around other parts of the immune system and not just at neutralising antibodies, Lessells said.

Phaahla said that he had hoped that the fourth wave would arrive in December or January, but this new variant was driving a spike in infections.

“We were very optimistic initially, even when we saw the rise in numbers in Gauteng, that this could be contained because we thought they were just a cluster of the Delta variant. But now there is this new variant which has clearly been identified. It just reconfirms that this invisible enemy that we are dealing with is very unpredictable,” the minister conceded.

Everybody travels in and out of (the economic hub) Gauteng from all corners of South Africa, so it is a given that in the next few days the beginning of rising positivity rate and numbers is going to be happening, he asserted.

Phaahla said the government and the Corona Command Council would meet over the coming weekend to consider the implications of the new variant and the upsurge in infections.

It’s too early to predict what is going to be the line of action, he said, when asked whether the current Level One of a five-level lockdown strategy would be tightened.

Daily infections in the country have surged to over 2,000 cases on Wednesday, up from about 100 recorded just over a week ago.

South Africa has reported cases of close to three million infections and almost 9,000 fatalities from COVID-19-related complications, the highest in the African continent.

Vaccine hesitancy and complacency regarding social distancing and wearing masks in public have been among the reasons cited for the country not having reached a level of herd immunity so far, health officials said.

Also read: South African scientists detect new virus variant amid spike

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