Leading scientists have called for immediate ‘code red’ international travel restrictions following reports that a new variant of Covid-19 leads to an increase in cases in southern Africa.
The variant, which was only identified on Tuesday, initially raised concerns because it carries an “extremely high number” of mutations that could allow it to evade immunity. The latest data, presented by South African scientists on Thursday, revealed that the variant also appears to be more transmissible and is already present in provinces across the country.
Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and member of Spi-M, which advises the UK government, called for urgent “code red” – or “type of red list” – restrictions to be imposed in the South Africa while the transmissibility of the new variant is under investigation, saying it posed a risk of a resumption of the pandemic.
He urged countries not to repeat the mistake of not acting quickly. “What we’ve learned from other situations like this – some went well and some didn’t – is that while we’re [investigating] you have to be reasonably paranoid, ”he said.
The new strain, B.1.1.529, was identified after a spate of cases in Gauteng, an urban area containing Pretoria and Johannesburg. Initially, the cluster of cases, centered on a university, was assumed to be due to an increase in socialization.
However, this week the variant was identified as a more concerning, potential cause of the increase. The first detected cases of the variant were collected in Botswana on November 11 and one case was also found in Hong Kong – a 36-year-old man who tested positive in quarantine after a trip to South Africa.
In the past 48 hours, South African scientists have looked at PCR test data from the Gauteng region and found that the new variant appeared to be behind the increase in cases, accounting for around 90% of cases. in a few weeks.
Nationally, the daily number of infections in South Africa reached 1,200 on Wednesday, up from 106 earlier in the month.
Speaking at a hurriedly called press conference on Thursday, virologist Tulio de Oliveira, said: “We can see very early signs that this lineage has rapidly increased in prevalence in Gauteng and may already be present in most provinces. “
Professor Anne von Gottberg, clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa, said there were now around 100 confirmed cases thanks to full sample sequencing, up from just 10 reported yesterday , and signs of community transmission.
“[The distribution] was a bit narrower two weeks ago, it was mainly in the area linked to the epidemic, and now the cases and the percentage of positivity of cases are moving to other districts and sub-districts ”, a- she declared. “It may have been localized initially, but it is definitely expanding to other districts.”
Professor Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, said the next few days and weeks will be critical in determining the severity of the variant. “At the start of a resurgence, sometimes we are mistaken in thinking that everything is a milder disease, and this may be because it initially spreads in younger age groups, so we have to see as it goes. that the spread becomes more widespread if we see cases of more severe disease, ”he said.
“What concerns us [is] that this variant might not only have improved transmissibility, therefore spread more efficiently, but might also be able to bypass parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system, ”he added.
Birney and other British scientists have called for new controls to be put in place immediately, saying it would be better to roll back the measures if the variant was found to be less of a concern than feared as a result of further investigation.
Professor Christina Pagel, University College London, said: “In my opinion, the UK should take the lead now. As far as we know, it’s not there yet. Adding South Africa and its close neighbors to the Red List seems reasonable given the UK’s status as an international travel hub, very few UK restrictions and worrying signs from South Africa, we must act now or risk it being too late. “
England no longer has a country on the red list imposing a quarantine on travelers arriving from abroad. People who are not fully vaccinated should test negative before flying and arrange two PCR tests upon arrival. Those who are fully vaccinated must undergo a Covid test within two days of landing.
The World Health Organization said it is “closely monitoring” the reported variant and is due to convene a technical meeting on Friday to determine whether it should be designated as a variant of “interest” or “concern.”
A No 10 spokesperson said: ‘We have one of the largest genomic sequencing programs here in the UK which allows us to spot and track variants as they emerge and, as we do. have been doing throughout the pandemic, we will continue to keep an eye on and keep this particular variant under review.
When asked if travel restrictions would be needed before Christmas due to the variant, the spokesperson said: “We will continue to keep the latest situation, the latest scientific evidence and data, under review, as we have been doing this throughout the pandemic. We have said this before if we think we need to take action we will, but we will continue to monitor this and other variants in the same way we have done throughout the pandemic. “