The World Health Organisation is meeting to assess the significance of the new B.1.1.529 variant of coronavirus, the B.1.1.529 variant has first been found in cases in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong.
owever, it has not yet been labelled a variant of concern.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said he was “deeply concerned” by the variant, which has led the UK to add six countries to its red travel list.
But how is this new variant different from previous versions and how dangerous is it?
– When did it first appear?
Scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. A total of 59 samples have been uploaded on to the website so far.
Three samples are from Hong Kong, three are from Botswana and the rest are from South Africa.
Outlining the situation in South Africa, one senior scientist said: “If we look at the results they had up to a week ago, less than 1pc of people were testing positive in lots of areas. That’s increased very dramatically in some parts to 6pc in the last few days, and so that makes me concerned quite rapidly on people that may be arriving [in the UK] now.”
– Are there any cases in the Ireland?
Currently, there are no cases in Ireland or the UK, or anywhere else in Europe.
The Department of Health has confirmed it is monitoring B.1.1.529.
“No cases of this variant have been reported in Europe to date, but the Minister for Health is deeply concerned,” a spokesperson for the department said.
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– What does this mean for travel?
There are not yet any new Irish travel restrictions, but Irish authorities say they are liaising with their Northern Irish and British counterparts. Flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe are suspended from midday on Friday and all six countries will be added to the UK’s red list.
– What does this mean for travellers?
The UK and Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive said on Thursday that UK and Irish residents who arrived in England between midday Friday and 4am Sunday, and who have been in the six countries within the last 10 days, must quarantine at home for 10 days and take NHS PCR tests on Day 2 and Day 8, even if they already have a lateral flow test booked.
Passengers – including UK and Irish residents – arriving from 4am Sunday will be required to book and pay for a government-approved hotel and quarantine for 10 days. They must also take tests on day 2 and day 8.
Direct flights from the six nations to the UK are being temporarily banned until 4am on Sunday, once the quarantine hotels have been set up.
From midday on Friday 26 November, non-UK and Irish who have visited the nations in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England.
– How is it different from the other variants?
Despite only being tracked for the past three days, the virus has been identified as having 30 different mutations already. By comparison, that is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent variant in Ireland over the past few months.
The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.“What we do know is there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters on Thursday evening.
“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.”
– Will the vaccines protect people against it?
It’s too early to say. The mutations could potentially make the variant more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
– Has it been classed as a “variant of concern”?
Not yet as scientists do not have enough evidence on its levels of transmissibility, however, some have said they are concerned.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has said: “B.1.1.529 has signatures of cumulative mutation indicating that it emerged in a chronic infection.
“B.1.1.529 does certainly look of significant concern based on mutations present. Many have been shown to impact binding by neutralising antibodies, and some are known to increase the ability of virus to enter cells or to make them fuse together to allow cell-cell spread.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.
“There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.
“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.”
It is known as a “variant under monitoring”, meaning scientists believe it may pose a future risk, but its impact is unclear.
– How worried should we be about this variant?
Scientists are eager to acquire live virus cultures so it can be examined, but this takes time. It can take seven to 10 days at least to grow enough virus that can be shared with other scientists so they can study how it mutates and changes.
Officials will now also have to wait for data to come from South Africa. The earliest they are expecting evidence to come through is two to three weeks, but it could be as long as four to six weeks.
– Could it overtake the dominant Delta variant?
Prof Liam Fanning from UCC has said that in order for the new variant to become a dominant variant in Ireland, should it arrive here, it has a “very high threshold to overtake Delta”.
“We know the vaccines cover us against Delta but this new virus, the threshold for it to evade the immunity the vaccines give us is exceptionally high,” he told RTÉ.
“While it may evade some aspects of our immune system, we have multiple arms of our immune system that target the virus at different sites, so it would be quite unlikely that the virus would modify…there are 20 sites of this particular virus that are not covered by antibodies but by the T cell so it would be quite unlikely that we would be exposed to it as if it was a brand new virus,” Prof Fanning said.
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