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Scientists alarmed over new ‘worst-ever’ COVID variant that could make vaccines 40% less effective

Scientists are growing increasingly alarmed at a new COVID-19 variant originating in Southern Africa, which on Thursday forced the U.K. and Israel to effectively stop travel from the region, but passengers are continuing to arrive in the U.S.  

The variant, B.1.1.529, is believed to have emerged in Botswana – from where there are no direct flights to the U.S. – and is also being found in neighboring South Africa. 

Hong Kong reported a case after a passenger who had recently traveled from South Africa was found to be infected with the variant, and then infected another person while in the same hotel, quarantining. 

Israel has also identified a case ‘in a person who returned from Malawi,’ with ‘two more cases of people returning from abroad’ placed in quarantine, the country’s health ministry said Friday. The Israel case is the third reported outside of Africa.

The variant – which could be named ‘Nu’ by the World Health Organization in the coming days – has caused an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa. 

As of 4:00 a.m. EST, the CDC website’s travel advice page for South Africa had the country listed as ‘Level 1: Low Level of COVID-19’, with the levels ranging from Level unknown, Level 1: Low, Level 2: Moderate, Level 3: High and Level 4: Very High.

The page asks anyone travelling to and from South Africa to be fully vaccinated, or for those who are not to be tested for Covid. It also recommends travellers follow measures in-place in South Africa, including wearing a mask and social distancing. 

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said initial data from the variant was worrying and border restrictions should be imposed. 

‘Looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant,’ he tweeted, pointing out that the two patients in Hong Kong who had the variant were both doubled-jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine. 

One of the two had recently been in Southern Africa. That person then passed it on to a second person, quarantining in the same hotel. 

‘It’s very airborne,’ Feigl-Ding said. ‘The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swabs across both rooms.’

He added: ‘I think border and travel restrictions make sense. Especially since Hong Kong only caught the case because of a mandatory hotel quarantine. Which countries in the west still have that??? Almost none.’ 

Botswana has four confirmed cases, South Africa 77 – with the real figure likely in the hundreds – and Hong Kong has two, meaning 83 cases of the variant are confirmed so far. 

Travellers from South Africa have been allowed entry into the US since November 8, when restrictions barring entry to people from more than 30 countries – that were implemented at the start of the pandemic – were partially lifted.

The new rules, which came 19 months after the travel ban was implemented, require international visitors to show both proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test. 

The UK and Israel on Thursday effectively stopped travel from Southern Africa, and some believe the US may follow suit

The UK and Israel on Thursday effectively stopped travel from Southern Africa, and some believe the US may follow suit

‘There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,’ said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, at a press briefing organized by South Africa’s health department on Thursday. 

‘The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.’ 

U.S. stock futures dropped in overnight trading on Thursday as concerns about the variant spread.

Futures for the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 400 points, while those for the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100 were both in negative territory. 

On Thursday Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid sounded the alarm over what one senior scientific advisor in the UK termed the ‘worst-ever’ super-mutant COVID variant. 

He said it could make vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective, and as a result he said they had banned flights from South Africa and five other regional countries.

Experts explained earlier how the B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations – the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta – that suggest it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it. 

In response, Javid announced that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list. 

Israel was the first country to follow suit, also red-listing the six nations, with Singapore, Germany, Italy the Czech Republic and the Netherlands also banning flights from South Africa.

A statement from European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU aims to halt air travel from the region due to concerns over the possible dangers posed by the variant. 

A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa on October 21

A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa on October 21

No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test.

There are currently 13 direct flights a week from South Africa to the United States – Johannesburg and Cape Town are the only cities in the region from where it is possible to fly direct to the U.S.

The 13 flights could hold around 3,900 people, if full. 

United Airlines currently fly direct from Johannesburg to New York City seven days a week, with the 16-hour flight leaving at 10pm and arriving at 7am in Newark.

United also fly direct to New York City from Cape Town three times a week, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday.

United flies Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, which can hold 290 people.

Delta fly direct from Johannesburg to Atlanta on Saturday, Monday, and Thursday.

They use Airbus A350-900, which can seat between 300 and 350 people.

Flight ‘bans’ have been implemented before – although they are rarely an outright ban on a commercial flight from a country. Instead, they are stringent restrictions on who can fly, meaning that the airlines themselves cancel the routes because there are so few people who meet the requirements. 

Donald Trump placed restrictions on travel from China to the U.S. in February 2020, and then the border between the U.S. and Canada was closed, and the U.S. and Mexico.

This month Joe Biden ended 18 months of restrictions placed on arrivals from the European Union, China, Iran, South Africa, Brazil and India, which had largely stopped travel between the countries.

Some epidemiologists have argued that putting a travel ban in place for South Africa is counterproductive, because it punishes a country that has been transparent with its data.

‘Given how transmissible that the nu variant apparently is, I do not think that halting travel will ultimately be effective in preventing the variant from arriving,’ said Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of health policy at Stanford, whose recent research focuses on the epidemiology of COVID-19 as well as an evaluation of policy responses to the epidemic. 

He told DailyMail.com: ‘COVID is a global pandemic. No country can isolate itself forever, and halting travel imposes harm on the kind of international cooperation we will need to end the pandemic. 

‘A better idea would be for the international community to provide sufficient vaccine supplies to the affected places.’ 

Others, such as Feigl-Ding, insist travel restrictions are necessary. 

South African scientists, meanwhile, add that they are ‘concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant’.  

The variant has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination. 

‘I’ve said before – I’m not always as concerned about these variants of concern, but this one, B.1.1.529, does concern me,’ said Marc Siegel, professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center, in an interview with Fox News.

‘It’s got 32 mutations in the spike protein, which is how the virus spreads. 

‘And in the province around Johannesburg, there’s about 2,500 new cases over the past day, and they think — not proven yet — that this is the predominant variant.’ 

Siegel said that there were numerous reasons for concern. 

‘It looks like it’s highly contagious,’ he said. 

‘And that is what concerns me, because the other variants that have emerged haven’t had a chance against Delta because Delta is so contagious. 

‘The other issue is, will the vaccine protect against this variant? Will the treatments protect against this variant? We’re keeping a really close eye on this one.’ 

The British expert whose modeling helped instigate the first coronavirus lockdown said that the decision to impose travel restrictions was ‘prudent’.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the British government’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.

‘It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa. The Government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent.

‘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.’

The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government

The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government

This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian 'Delta' variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks

This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in South Africa. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks

Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue, with a number of scientists expressing serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.

One senior scientist said: ‘One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern.’

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday at 11:00 GMT to assess the evolving situation in the country.

The variant could eventually be given the moniker ‘Nu’ – with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet. 

The variant is already in three countries, suggesting it is more widespread than the official tally.

Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong – both of whom had links to South Africa – three have been picked up in Botswana and the remainder are in South Africa.

But a lack of surveillance on continental Africa may be underestimating the true numbers there, scientists warned. 

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a director of COVID surveillance in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, told a press conference on Thursday that it has been spotted in nearly every corner of South Africa.

He admitted he was still ‘uncertain’ about the impact of the variant on the country’s epidemic, with other scientists saying that it might be so evolved that it becomes unstable.

But Professor Oliveria explained the new variant is ‘clearly very different’ from previous strains, including the fact that it has five times more mutations on a specific part of the spike protein than Delta — meaning it might be better at infecting vaccinated people than the world-dominant strain.

He said that officials ‘do expect, unfortunately, to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.’

Joe Phaahlam, South Africa’s Health Minister, warned at the same press conference: ‘Here is a mutation variant of serious concern.’ 

He added: ‘We were hopeful that we might have a longer break in between waves – possibly that it would hold off to late December or even next year January.’ 

Current jabs train the immune system to recognize an older version of the spike, and lots of changes to this protein make it harder for the vaccinated people to fight it off.

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