‘Worst ever’ Botswana variant now spotted in Israel as strain spreads to four countries in two weeks

The new ‘worst ever’ Botswana Covid strain causing international alarm was discovered in Israel today as the ultra-infectious and vaccine-resistant strain spreads to four countries in two weeks.

Israel’s health ministry said the patient tested positive for B.1.1,529 after returning from Malawi, suggesting it is already widespread in continental Africa. There are two other suspected cases in Israel.

Germany and Italy today joined Britain in suspending travel from South Africa and, in a sign of mounting concern, the European Union is also proposing to ban travel from the country and its neighbours.

The infection rate in South Africa jumped 93 percent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is causing the rise. Local scientists say it has likely spread to all nine provinces of the country, but there has been no increase in hospitalizations in the Johannesburg epicenter yet.

The new case is the third outside Africa after two were reported in Hong Kong. The first was on a traveler who had just returned from South Africa and a second has now been spotted in the same quarantine hotel.

In response, the UK has suspended all travel from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from 12 noon and will track down anyone who has come to Britain from these countries in the past 10 days.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps said the UK took a ‘safety-first approach’ and acted quickly to slow down access to the country.

Experts warn Britons must now arm themselves against the Christmas disruption with the ‘possibility of a restriction change’. So far, no cases have been reported in the country.

The super mutant with 30 mutations — the most ever and twice as many as delta — caused cases in South Africa to rise 93 percent in one day.

Infections have mostly been detected in young people and in a ray of hope, hospital admissions have yet to rise – but admissions are a lagging indicator.

South Africa has seen 77 cases so far, but the scientists warn it may have already spread to most of South Africa.

It has a “constellation constellation” of mutations that scientists fear could make it ultra-infectious and better able to evade vaccine-induced immunity compared to Delta and other variants.

This graph shows the number of cases that were the B.1.1,529 variant (blue) and the Indian 'Delta' variant (red) in South Africa over time.  It suggests the mutated strain could surpass Delta in the province within weeks

This graph shows the number of cases that were the B.1.1,529 variant (blue) and the Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) in South Africa over time. It suggests the mutated strain could surpass Delta in the province within weeks

Mr Shapps told Sky News the UK took immediate action to “give us some time” for scientists to find out if this variant “is of interest”.

He added: ‘We’ve done that before with things like the mink variety from Denmark and we were able to relax it fairly quickly.’

Germany and Italy joined Britain on Friday by banning most travel from South Africa today, as governments work to prevent the spread of a new Covid variant with a large number of mutations.

As a sign of growing alarm, the European Union has separately proposed banning travel from southern Africa.

The EU executive “will propose, in close consultation with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air traffic from the South African region due to variant of concern B.1.1.529,” tweeted EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Germany’s new travel restrictions, which come into effect Friday night, will affect South Africa and “probably neighboring countries,” Spahn said, with access only to German citizens.

They must be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival, even if they have been vaccinated. In Britain, they are quarantined for 11 days in government hotels for around £2,800.

“The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,” Spahn said, as Germany is in the throes of a relentless fourth wave of the pandemic.

In Rome, the government announced Friday that it is banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini in the past two weeks.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists are studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, “and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution.”

Asian countries are also preparing to tighten curbs.

Two Welsh rugby clubs in South Africa for a tournament are trying to leave as soon as possible, and British and Irish golfers have withdrawn from the Johannesburg Open.

South Africa has denounced Britain’s travel ban as rushed.

Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said: “Our immediate concern is the damage this decision will inflict on both the tourism and business sectors of both countries.”

A government spokesman said: “Imposing travel bans from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded any meaningful outcome.”

A WHO working group on virus evolution is meeting Friday to discuss whether it should officially receive that label, a designation only given to four variants so far.

WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a video on Twitter that it could take a few weeks to understand the impact of the variant’s mutations.

Scientists from the UK Health Security Agency – who took over from Public Health England – said it had the ‘worst’ combination of mutations ever.

South African experts said some of its spike protein — which the virus uses to invade cells — had 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three and Delta has two in the same location.

Israel is the first country to follow the UK, suspending all travel from the six South African countries. There are no plans to suspend travel from Malawi yet.

UKHSA scientists label it as a ‘variety in research’. The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting on the mutant strain today.

While concerns have been raised about the variant, nothing is known about its virulence and whether those who get it are more likely to become seriously ill and die. Scientists are working to reveal this information in the coming days.

What impact could it have on vaccines?

Scientists have expressed concern that the super Botswana Covid variant may be better able to evade vaccine-induced immunity than any previous strains — including Delta.

Scientists from the UK’s Health Security Agency say it’s the ‘worst ever’. It combines mutations previously seen on the beta variant, which raised concerns last year because it was thought to be more vaccine resistant, and those on the more transmissible alpha strain that was behind the second wave.

Scientists warn that it is “plausible” that the mutated variant is spreading quickly because it is better able to infect people who have immunity to vaccines or a previous infection.

In South Africa, where it is spreading, most people already have immunity to previous infections. About 40 percent have also received two doses of the Covid jab.

But despite the concerns, lab tests have yet to confirm that the variant is better able to evade vaccine-triggered immunity than other mutated strains.

Very little is known about its virulence and whether someone who catches the mutated strain is more likely to end up in hospital or die from the disease.

Could it trigger another lockdown?

There are no suggestions that this could trigger another lockdown in the UK at this stage.

Officials have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and Botswana – where it has been discovered – and their neighbors Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Flights from these countries to England will be suspended until Sunday as hundreds of hotel rooms are prepared for mandatory quarantine.

British experts say the move is “cautious” and it will likely delay the arrival of the mutant strain in the country by weeks or months. So far, no cases have been reported on British shores.

But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Vaccination and Immunization Committee (JCVI), said it was not yet clear whether this could affect Christmas.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘On the one hand I don’t want to create undue fear in people, but on the other I think we should all be ready for the possibility of a change in restrictions.’

He added: “There are a number of things going on now to understand this, find it, trace it, hopefully eradicate it if it’s there at all.”

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