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Covid-19: South African variant 'most complex and worrying' yet

Scientists say the new Covid-19 variant is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people
Andrew Meldrum and Mogomotsi Magome, Associated Press

A new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa has been described as the most "complex" and "worrying" yet seen.

The high number of mutations and rapid spread of the B.1.1.529 strain among young people in Gauteng, the country's most populous province has caused alarm among coronavirus experts.

Chief Medical Adviser at the UK Health Security Agency Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme: "The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it's got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that's double what we had in Delta.

"And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it's a highly complex mutation, there's new ones we haven't seen before, so we don't know how they're going to interact in common.

"So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite its definitely the most complex variant before."

She added: "It is the most worrying we've seen."

The European Union's executive has said it wants to stop air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of a new Covid-19 variant.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she "proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region".

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said the new variant is "not doomsday" as vaccines and treatment get better at controlling the virus.

Mr Naismith told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme: "If it spreads more quickly then yes it will get here, the travel ban will delay its arrival but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we've seen before that it will get here eventually.

"We shouldn't despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven't had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.

"Secondly there are new medicines coming along... these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.

"We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday."

Mr Naismith said the new variant appears to "spread more quickly" and will "almost certainly" make the vaccines less effective.

Asked if it is highly transmissible, he added: "We don't really know that's for sure yet

"It has mutations consistent with the Delta variant, which does spread more quickly, but transmissibility and spread is not just as simple as this amino acid does this or this does that, it's more like a team on things.

"So you can sometimes have the mutations all together but they won't be effective as a team.

"It looks like it spreads more quickly but we do not know that."

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said more needs to be learned about a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19 to assess the threat it poses, but that new restrictions could not be ruled out.

Mr Finn told ITV's Good Morning Britain that a jump in cases in South Africa could be linked to the variant's enhanced transmissibility.

"We now need to wait and see just what kind of threat this new variant may pose," he said.

"If we're lucky, it won't be a serious one, but it could be very serious."

He said he could not predict if this would affect Christmas.

"On the one hand, I don't want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions," he said.

Mr Finn said sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.

"There are a number of things going on now to understand this, to look for it, to trace it, to hopefully stamp it out if it is already here," he said.

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