UK raises concerns over ‘South African’ Covid-19 variant

 ·4 Jan 2021

The UK has raised concerns around a second variant of Covid-19 detected in the country which it claims it first came into contact with from South Africa.

In an interview on Monday (4 January),  the UK’s Health and Social Care secretary Matt Hancock said that he had been in discussion with Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize about the new variant over the Christmas period.

“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant. That’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa, and movement from South Africa, and to insist that anybody who’s been to South Africa self isolates.

“This is a very significant problem. In fact, I spoke to my South African opposite number over Christmas, and one of the reasons they know they’ve got a problem is because, like us, they have an excellent genomic scientific capability, to be able to study the details of the virus. And it is even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

Hancock said that the second variant will make life ‘much harder’ as it makes it more difficult to control the spread of the coronavirus due to the variant passing on much faster.

Scientists are also not fully confident that Covid-19 vaccines will work on a new variant of the coronavirus found in South Africa, ITV’s political editor said on Monday, citing an unidentified scientific adviser to the British government.

“According to one of the government’s scientific advisers, the reason for Matt Hancock’s ‘incredible worry’ about the South African Covid-19 variant is that they are not as confident the vaccines will be as effective against it as they are for the UK’s variant,” ITV political editor Robert Peston said.

South Africa not to blame  

At the end of December, Hancock moved to ban travel between the UK and South Africa citing the second variant as a key concern.

However, Mkhize said that the second variant discovered in South Africa is not to blame for the coronavirus wave currently being seen in the UK.

“There is evidence that the UK variant developed earlier than the South African variant,” Mkhize said in a statement over Christmas.

He said that on 14 December, the UK reported to the WHO that a variant had been identified and traced back to 20 September 2020 in Kent, South East England- approximately a month before the South African variant appears to have developed.

This variant has a mutation occurring at a site common with the South African variant (the 501), although they are two completely independent lineages, the minister said.

The UK variant is thought to be driving the second wave that the UK are experiencing currently.

“In addition, the UK variant has already been identified outside of the UK as reported by Prof Neil Ferguson, a top British scientists who told the UK’s science and technology committee two days ago (23 Dec 2020) that evidence from Denmark, a country with a relatively low infection rate, suggests that ‘almost certainly’ the new virus variant identified in the UK is already in the ‘great majority if not all’ European countries.”

Dr Mkhize said he is also concerned that there is rhetoric developing that the 501.V2 variant is more transmissible than the UK variant or may potentially cause more serious morbidity and mortality.

“This has come in the wake of two samples collected from contacts of South African travellers testing positive for a SARS-COV-2 variant genetically identical to 501.V2.

“We have consulted with our genomics team who have assured us that, at present, there is no evidence that the 501.V2 is more transmissible than the United Kingdom variant- as suggested by British health secretary.

“There is also no evidence that the 501.V2 causes more severe disease or in-creased mortality than the UK variant or any variant that has been sequenced around the world.”

He said that banning travel between UK and South Africa is an unfortunate decision. Such a decision would require more scientific evidence than is currently available.

“There is no evidence that the South Africa variant is more pathogenic than the UK variant to necessitate this step,” he said.

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