Watch: New COVID-19 variant triggers global alarm
Travel restrictions are an important part of buying time for the UK to plan and prepare for a concerning new coronavirus variant that is “likely to be transmitted” into the country at some point, an expert has said.
Belgium has become the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant B.1.1.529, the emergence of which has prompted the UK to add South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to its travel red list.
Researchers say that while there are hints the variant – which carries a combination of mutations that makes it concerning – could be more transmissible, travel restrictions allow time for more data to be collected.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “It is probably right, that it’s a case of buying time, because of past experience.
“But I also think this is a different circumstance than Delta, and there might be some hope for maybe some amount of containment or at least that timeline phase to be even longer.”
He added the situation was different because South Africa had been able to quickly identify the variant and share its findings with the world.
Dr Barrett said: “I think we are certainly at an earlier point in this variant’s journey and so things we do now may well have at least a bigger effect than they did in the case of Delta.”
Sharon Peacock is director of Cog-UK and professor of public health and microbiology at University of Cambridge.
She said: “I think it’s right that we give ourselves the time to do both the laboratory experiments or find the results of the proprietary experiments out from South Africa and also start to do the real-world studies looking at vaccine efficacy, because that has big implications for how we plan if this does reach our shores.
“I do agree and that when you look at the behaviour of Alpha and Delta, once a new variant of concern emerges and it’s fitter than the previous variant, it can be difficult to actually stop it going into a country unless you have very, very stringent lockdown rules, which we see in some countries.
“Buying time is important, and it’s worthwhile, because we can find out what we need to know about that particular variant.
“This is part of important planning and preparation for something that I guess is likely to be transmitted into the UK at some point, but it buys that time.”
Prof Peacock said the concern is that B.1.1.529 is more transmissible than the Delta variant, but it is too early to be sure.
She added that so far there was nothing to suggest the variant causes more severe disease.
Professor Wendy Barclay, G2P-UK lead and Action Medical Research chair in virology, Imperial College London, said: “We don’t have any evidence at the moment that this is a more severe virus.
“We have evidence, we think, that it is transmitting very well. And we can predict from its sequence that it’s likely to be affected in the way it’s seen by the immune system.”
She added that the data is scarce, and there is also no evidence to suggest the virus is mutating to cause less disease but it is “not an inconceivable biological route for the virus to go” at some stage.
The experts also suggested that because of the number of mutations and where they sit in the variant, there is concern vaccines could be less effective against it, but more studies are needed.
Prof Barclay said: “We’re hopeful that at the severe end of the spectrum, for even quite diverse variants like this one, there would still be protection.
“It’s simply that the amount of protection and number of people protected might be less, and so that percentage vaccine effectiveness might drop. And the question is, how low?”
She added: “If we have a variant that is antigenically distant and isn’t neutralised at a certain level of antibody, there is something we can do – we can boost the overall antibody levels, because sometimes quantity can sort of compensate for the lack of match.”
Prof Peacock said: “Once we have more information about real-world efficacy against this new variant, then we can actually start to make informed decisions.
“But until such time I think it’s so important to stress how much we don’t know at the moment about this new variant.”
Dr Barrett said that while the vaccines currently available are doing a great job, it would be good if there were already some more diverse spike versions in these vaccines.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, announced that it is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
The researchers say the next couple of weeks should provide more data about the variant and the effect it is likely to have on the spread of the virus.