Covid-19 Updates: Latest News on New Variant
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A number of countries – including Britain, Israel, Italy and Singapore – on Friday decided to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, a day after southern authorities -African women have identified a worrying new variant of the coronavirus with mutations that a scientist said marked a “big leap in evolution.”
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variations. This time, the restrictions came hours after South Africa’s announcement – and hours before the country’s health officials discussed the variant with the World Health Organization.
Britain and Israel on Thursday announced a ban on flights from South Africa and several neighboring countries, citing the threat of the new variant. The UK flight ban applies to six countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and begins Friday at noon local time.
“More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now”, Sajid Javid, the UK Health Secretary, said on twitter.
Italian governments, Malta and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions. Markets were down in Japan in response to the discovery of the variant, and authorities in Australia and New Zealand said they were watching it closely.
“Our scientists are at work to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said in a statement, using the scientific name of the variant. “In the meantime, we err on the side of caution.”
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU Executive, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that she would propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa due to concerns about the variant.
In the past two days, scientists have detected the variant after observing an increase in infections in the South African economic center surrounding Johannesburg. So far, only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.
A number of variations have appeared since the start of the pandemic. An underlying concern about them is whether they will hinder the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines. South African scientists will meet with the World Health Organization’s technical team on Friday to discuss the new variant, and authorities will assign it a letter from the Greek alphabet.
In a statement posted to a government website on Friday, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying: “The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans entering the UK appear to have been rushed, as even the Global Health organization has yet to give advice on next steps.
In December of last year, South Africa was the first country to report the appearance of the beta variant, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries. Scientists have expressed concern that some clinical trials have shown that vaccines offer less protection against the beta variant. Since then, the most virulent and aggressive Delta variant has spread around the world and is believed to be behind the latest wave of cases.
With more than 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is far lower than that of Germany, where new cases are causing a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises concerns that it is highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm bells early.
“This variant surprised us – it has a big evolutionary leap, a lot more mutations than expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the sequencing platform at research and innovation from KwaZulu-Natal.
Emma Bubola and John yoon contributed reports.
Scientists still do not know how effective the vaccines will be against the new variant reported by a team in South Africa, which has mutations that could resist neutralization. Only several dozen cases have been fully identified to date in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The new variant, B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with over 30 in the spike protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform of KwaZulu-Natal.
On the ACE2 receptor – the protein that helps create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells – the new variant has 10 mutations. By comparison, the Beta variant has three and the Delta variant has two, de Oliveira said.
The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate escape of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. .
“All of these things are what makes us fear that this variant has not only improved transmissibility, therefore spread more efficiently, but may also be able to bypass parts of the immune system and the protection that we have in our system. immune, ”Dr. Lessells says.
The new variant has been widely detected in young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of people aged 18 to 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister.
While cases of the variant are mostly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country. countries as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, Dr Phaahla said.
The Hong Kong government said Thursday it had detected two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists say shows a “big leap in evolution” and could limit vaccine effectiveness.
The infections were detected in a man who had returned from South Africa to Hong Kong this month, and later in another man staying across the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas arrivals to be quarantined in hotels for two to three weeks.) The genetic sequence of the virus was identical in the two men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the Center for City Health Protection. Both men have been vaccinated.
Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, although they acknowledged that information about the variant’s impact on the public health were “lacking for the moment”.
Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and effectiveness of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that authorities have recorded several cases of residents of quarantine hotels apparently infecting people staying in other rooms.
In the case of the latest variants of infections, the government criticized the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory airflow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon, no cases of infection were reported in neighboring rooms.
The presence of the new variant may complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said the resumption of quarantine-free travel between Chinese territory and the mainland – virtually the only places in the world still pursuing a containment strategy that seeks complete eradication of the virus – is their top priority, even though the strategy has tarnished the city’s reputation as a global financial center.
Mainland officials said Hong Kong was not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has only recorded two locally transmitted cases in the past six months. The continent has recently faced new domestic epidemics; On Thursday, the National Health Commission reported four new local cases there.
Hong Kong No. 2 official John Lee said Thursday evening officials from the mainland told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “essentially fulfilled” the conditions to reopen the border. He said details still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a continental-style “health code” application that raised privacy concerns.
Asked by a reporter whether the new variant would delay reopening with the mainland, Lee only said Hong Kong officials “will ensure that adequate research and monitoring is carried out in this regard.”
“Of course, we have to manage and control any new risk,” he said.
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