By Alistair Smout and Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - A Brazilian variant of the coronavirus is significant enough to justify stopping flights from South America as a precaution, British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Friday.
Britain will ban arrivals from South American countries and Portugal because of concerns over the new Brazilian variant of the coronavirus, a move slammed by Portugal's foreign minister as "absurd".
The Brazilian variant shares some characteristics with new variants first identified in Britain and South Africa, which are believed by scientists to be more transmissible but not to cause more severe disease.
"As with the variant that we saw in Kent (southern England)or the one in South Africa, it's significantly enough of interest to us just to take this precautionary approach of stopping all those flights from Brazil (and) South America," Shapps told Sky News.
"Our scientists aren't saying that the vaccine won't work against it," Shapps said.
"(But) we do not want to be tripping up at this last moment (of vaccine rollout) which is why I took the decision as an extra precaution to ban those flights."
Shapps later said scientists believed vaccines would work on the Brazilian variant, going further than the government's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance.
Vallance on Wednesday said there was not evidence vaccines would not work, but said the Brazilian variant was more of a risk and "we don't know" if it would affect the immune response.
Shapps said Britain had been looking at the variant since Sunday, when Japan said it had been detected in four travellers from Brazil.
Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College London, told journalists that one of two Brazilian variants had been found in Britain, but later clarified that the variant found in Japan had not been detected.
"The new Brazilian variant of concern, that was picked up in travellers going to Japan, has not been detected in the UK," she said in a statement.
"Other variants that may have originated from Brazil have been previously found."
(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Kate Kelland; Editing by Michael Holden, James Davey and Alex Richardson)