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New Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa should be kept ‘under watching brief’.

The spread of a new Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa, potentially better at evading vaccine immunity than current strains, was “the last thing that Ireland needs,” a leading academic has said.

The British government has moved to suspend flights from South Africa and five other African countries in response to emerging reports of the new variant.

In a statement on Thursday night, the Department of Health said it had been monitoring the new variant, B.1.1.529, but noted the WHO had not yet designated it as a “variant of concern”.

The department said it was “aware of measures taken by the Government of the United Kingdom including the suspension of flights from a number of African countries.”

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was “deeply concerned” about the variant, the statement said, but noted that no cases have been reported in Europe to date.

Department officials had been in contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland, “and we will continue to liaise with UK authorities,” it said.

“The Department’s advice to the Minister will continue to be informed by relevant guidance emanating from the ECDC and the WHO,” it said.

Prof Liam Fanning, immunovirologist at University College Cork, said developments around the variant should be kept “under a watching brief” by Irish officials.

“It may or may not turn out to be a variant moving from a variant of interest, to a variant of concern,” he told RTÉ PrimeTime.

“The last thing that Ireland needs, given the circumstances we have between high prevalence and hospitalisations, hospitals under threat, is to have a new variant that is going to out compete Delta,” Prof Fanning said.

The immunovirologist noted the variant would have to meet a “very high threshold in order to replace Delta,” and become the most prevalent strain of the virus. The bar for it to “evade the immunity that vaccines give is actually exceptionally high,” he added.

“It would be quite unlikely that we would be totally exposed … as if this was a new virus, I think we will have some protection from the vaccine we have currently,” he said.

The World Health Organization has said it was “closely monitoring” the news around the reported new variant, and is to meet on Friday to discuss if it should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”.

Current Department of Foreign Affairs travel guidance “no longer advises against non-essential travel to South Africa based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks”.

A department spokesman said there was no expected update to the travel advice on Thursday night.

Concerning development

Prof Cliona O’Farrelly, professor of comparative immunology at Trinity College Dublin, said it “certainly” looked like the variant was a concerning development.

She said it was “almost inevitable that new variants would arise”.

The emergence of new variants emphasised the need for “a global approach” to the pandemic, and that more needed to be done to help countries in Africa who were having difficulties accessing vaccines, she said.

Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe have been suspended in the UK from midday on Friday and all six countries will be added to the country’s red list, UK health secretary Sajid Javid has said.

The move has been made in response to the discover y of the most concerning variant that British health officials have seen as it has double the number of mutations of the Delta variant, including some associated with evading immune response.

Mr Javid said the new variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.

The UK announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa and five other countries from 12pm on Friday and returning British travellers from those destinations would have to quarantine.

The UK Health Security Agency (HSA) said that the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that Covid-19 vaccines are based on. It has mutations that are likely to evade the immune response generated both by prior infection and vaccination, and also mutations associated with increased infectivity.

Lab studies are needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy, scientists said. Officials have advised the government on the need to act swiftly and pre-emptively in case the concerns over the impact of variant are borne out, even though it could take weeks to generate all the information needed about its characteristics.

Implications

Earlier on Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected the new Covid-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.

The variant has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, the scientists told reporters at a news conference.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong. The UK HSA said that no cases of the variant had been detected in the UK and they were in contact with South African colleagues over their data.

Experts from the World Health Organisation are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country. The variant could eventually be given the moniker “Nu”, as the most concerning variants are named after letters of the Greek alphabet. – Reuters/PA

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