Botswana variant: Government ‘must act swiftly’ over new Covid strain, says Grant Shapps

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Botswana variant: Government ‘must act swiftly’ over new Covid strain, says Grant Shapps
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The Government must “act immediately” to prevent the spread of a new Covid variant which has emerged in southern Africa, transport secretary Grant Shapps has said.

The Cabinet minister stressed that “we must learn whether the strain can escape the vaccine or not” as he sought to downplay fears that it had already taken hold in the UK.

Ministers are to impose a travel ban on six nations in the region due to rising concerns over the new strain of the virus.

Scientists fear the new B.1.1.529 variant, first detected in Botswana, could be more transmissible and partially evade the immunity conferred by vaccines. The chief medical adviser for the UK Health Security Agency has said it was the “most complex” and “worrying” strain detected so far during the pandemic.

Pressed on the travel ban, Mr Shapps told Sky News: “It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country.

“That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures – it takes several weeks to do – so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.

“It is a safety-first approach. We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.”

He added: “We need to learn about the severity and transmissibility of the strain, and critically whether it can escape the vaccine or not”.

Meanwhile, the chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency Dr Susan Hopkins warned the new variant had a substantial number of mutations that had sparked alarm among scientists.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “It’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.

“And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation...we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.

“So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite its definitely the most complex variant before.”

She added: “It is the most worrying we’ve seen.”

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said more needs to be learned about the new variant to assess the threat it poses, but that new restrictions could not be ruled out.

“On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions,” he told Good Morning Britain.

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