New B. 19 variant in southern Africa most worrying

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New B. 19 variant in southern Africa most worrying

The chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency has warned that a newly identified Covid 19 variant in southern Africa is the most worrying we have seen with transmission levels not recorded since the beginning of the epidemic.

Susan Hopkins said the R value, or effective reproduction number, of the B. The 529 variant in Gauteng in South Africa, where it was first found, is now 2. An epidemic will grow exponentially for an R of any more than 1, an R of any higher than 1.

She expressed her concerns as the European Commission announced plans to stop flights from the southern Africa region. On Thursday, England and Scotland said they were banning flights from six countries in the region.

Hopkins said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: What we see in South Africa is that they are at a very, very low point, with a very low amount of cases a day, and in a shorter period than two weeks they have more than doubled their epidemiology picture.

They say that their transmission rates, the R value they have in Gauteng around where this was first found, is now 2, which is really quite high and we have not seen levels of transmission since right back at the beginning of the epidemic because of all of the mitigations and steps we have taken. If you had that high transmission with this type of virus in a population where it could be evaded the immune responses that are already there, that would cause a major problem. She stressed that no cases had yet to be identified in the UK and that one of the 30 mutations of the B. The variant 529 is very similar to one of the alpha mutations, meaning it can be detected easily with a large amount of existing PCR tests, but hasn't shown up yet.

Hopkins said that some mutations could change the immune response, as had been seen in South Africa, whose population, although not highly vaccinated, has high immunity from previous infections, but only time would tell the extent. We would like more details in laboratory studies and epidemiological studies. She said that the South Africans have already started to give us that information, but it will take weeks rather than days to find the full information.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said the government was taking a safety-first approach to the new variant, but it did not necessitate reintroducing enforcement of face masks in public transport and shops.

He told Sky News: We want the economy to be able to flourish, we want people to be able to go about their business, see their friends and family. We're trying to operate as permissive an atmosphere as possible, but we're keeping a very close eye on this all the time. In all the numbers, we haven't seen a reason to do anything else. South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe were put on the travel red list by England on Thursday and flights are banned from Friday.

South Africa s foreign ministry said the decision to ban flights from South Africa seems to have been rushed, given the World Health Organization is yet to give any advice on the next steps. It said it would try to get England to reconsider its decision and asked for an urgent meeting of a WHO Working Group on Viral Evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, tweeted on Friday: