THE two cases of a new Covid strain from South Africa detected in the UK are probably just the “tip of the iceberg”, experts say.
And they fear banning flights from South Africa, and strict quarantining of recent arrivals, may be “too late” to stop the spread of the new variant in the UK.
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During yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the new and “highly concerning” strain, called 501.V2, had entered Britain.
He ordered anyone who has visited South Africa in the past two weeks, or been in contact with someone who has, to quarantine immediately.
All flights from South Africa will be stopped, with people who have been in or transited through South Africa in the last 10 days are no longer allowed into the UK, other than British or Irish nationals who must self isolate.
Mr Hancock claimed the new variant is even more contagious than another new strain detected in Kent and London earlier this month, which scientists say is up to 70 per cent more easily spread.
It has led to millions being plunged into Tier 4 at the “eleventh hour” before Christmas, or on Boxing Day, to manage “out of control” cases.
Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist, University of Warwick, told The Sun: “If this strain is as transmissible as suggested by the data that has come out of South Africa, then just identifying a few cases recently, it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect.
“You can identify it in a couple of people… but they’ll be more, for sure.
“Some cases will be from people spreading it in the UK, and some will be from other introductions from South Africa.”
Prof Young said there is “still a lot we don’t know” about the variant from South Africa, and whether it is more transmissible, or simply been able to grow “in the right place, at the right time”.
Scientists in South Africa say the variant is still being analysed, but the data are consistent with it spreading more quickly. It accounts for around 90 per cent of new cases.
Prof Young said: “If this has become the dominant infection in South Africa, and it’s been there certainly for a couple of months, and how many have travelled between the UK and South Africa in that time now? Quite a lot I would’ve thought.”
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it’s “quite possible” there are undetected cases in the UK, but it will “probably be a number of weeks before we know for certain”.
Speaking of the quarantine measures imposed yesterday, Prof Hunter said: “It might already be too late, but we just don’t know.
“If [these two] are the only infections, yes it might be enough. But if it has already spread elsewhere in the UK and we just don’t know it, the answer is probably no, it won’t be sufficient.”
What is the new strain from South Africa?
The new variant is called 501.V2 and it was announced by the South African government on December 18.
At this stage, its symptoms do not appear to be different to that caused by the original Covid strain.
The most common signs of Covid to look out for are a loss of taste and smell, a persistent cough, and a high temperature.
Scientists are investigating whether the new strain causes more severe disease. But it does seem to be infecting more young people than the original strain, according to South African’s health minister Zweli Mkhize.
Dr Andrew Preston, University of Bath, said: “The ‘South African’ variant is distinct from the UK variant, but both contain an unusually high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”
“Some of these mutations change the S protein, which is cause for concern,” Dr Preston said.
The spike protein is on the outer surface of the viral particle. It is a focus for coronavirus vaccines, and so if it changes, it could affect how vaccines work.
New strains may make vaccines less effective, because the immune system does not recognise the new variant when it infects the body. This is “highly unlikely” to affect the vaccines that are being rolled out in the UK right now.
The mutations in this virus also mean it’s possible it can reinfect a person who has already recovered from Covid-19.
All of these things are being studied closely.
Mutations are normal in any evolution of a virus over time. Already thousands have been found in SARS-CoV-2 within one year.
What makes the latest two from the UK and South Africa so interesting is the speed at which they became “prominent”, causing lots of cases and suddenly.
The two confirmed cases -in London and the North West – were close contacts of people who had recently travelled to South Africa.
Those travellers would have had Covid-19, possibly without showing symptoms.
It is not clear if this was while they were in the UK, and if they have passed it onto other people who have gone undetected.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins told the Downing Street press conference yesterday that health chiefs were “pretty confident” the measures that have been taken will help to control the spread.
TRAVEL ALLOWS STRAINS TO SPREAD
Experts said it’s likely there are more cases of the South Africa variant on the basis that the UK one has already reached several other countries.
Prof Hunter told The Sun: “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was circulating, in the way the English one is circulating already in many European countries.”
Prof Young said: “This so-called UK variant is now in Belgium, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark. It’s all over the place. Today it’s been reported in Israel.
“It’s because of travelling. I know it is difficult, but if you don’t restrict travel, and you’re not strict about quarantining people, this is what you end up with.”
The UK has repeatedly seen introductions of other strains from across the world which have quickly become dominant, and caused cases to soar.
Prof Young said: “One of the things we’ve not been so good at is border control. When you look at countries that have been successful, one of the things they did very early on is shut their borders.
“We were very slow to do that, hence we allowed a lot of introductions of the virus into the UK from overseas.
“That’s what happened in the first wave, and it looks like that also contributed to fuelling this second wave.”
What’s happening in South Africa?
501.V2 accounts for up to 90 percent of South Africa’s new cases.
Daily confirmed infections are reaching 9,500 per day, on average.
It’s the highest it’s been since the peak of the first wave in July, when almost 13,000 cases were being diagnosed a day.
The country saw a dip in cases between September and mid-November before a sudden spike, which the health minister Mr Mkhize said was “being driven by this new variant”.
Latest figures suggest the South African strain was behind a record number of people being hospitalised there.
South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections on the African continent, approaching the 950,000 mark, with over 25,000 related deaths so far.
A resurgence in positive cases saw the government tighten lockdown restrictions last week, but a lockdown has not been used.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on December 18 it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.
“We are working with them with our SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution working group,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.
“They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.”