A new supermutant Covid variant that has sparked fears of yet another lockdown in the UK may have emerged in an HIV patient in Africa, is the most developed version yet and could make jabs much weaker.
Researchers believe that its extensive mutations mean that it must originate from a severely immunocompromised patient, possibly an undiagnosed person with AIDS.
It has more than 30 mutations, giving it the entire transmissibility of the currently dominant Delta strain and the same ability to escape vaccines as the old South African variant Beta.
Experts fear that the new variant – called B.1.1.529 – will make the vaccines at least 40 percent less effective because it is so well equipped to dodge the protection they provide.
Britons have been warned that there may be a Christmas closure in which one of No10’s vaccine advisers warns that ‘we all need to be ready’ for restrictions to be reintroduced.
Here is everything we know about the variant so far:
What is so worrying about the variant?
Not much is known yet about the new strain, but the number of mutations it carries has startled scientists.
The variant has more than 30 mutations – the most recorded ever and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain. One scientist said these changes made the variant the worst seen so far.
Experts fear that the changes could make the vaccines 40 percent less effective in the best case, because the new version of the virus is better at avoiding the protection provided by jabs.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the peak protein of the virus. The current harvest of vaccines is causing the body to recognize the version of the nail protein from older versions of the virus.
But because the tip protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system can struggle to recognize it and fight it.
It also includes mutations that make it easier to spread.
Experts warn they will not know how much more contagious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
Will it affect Christmas in the UK?
Experts said it will be weeks before they know how worrying the new variant is, so it is not yet clear what extra steps may need to be taken.
The only action measures that the government has introduced so far have been to add six countries to the red list.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), said new restrictions could not be ruled out.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “On the one hand, I do not want to provoke unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we should all be ready for the possibility of a change in restrictions.”
Where has the variant been discovered so far?
The variant has so far been seen in four countries: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
And Belgian health chiefs said the country has two suspected cases caused by the new tribe.
Most cases have been detected in Gauteng, a province in northeastern South Africa.
The first case was uploaded to an international variant database of Hong Kong and was seen by a person traveling to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists are not sequencing all positive Covid samples in the UK, and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means that there may be people infected with the variant in the UK.
What does the UK do with the variant?
The health minister announced last night that six countries would be added to the red list from noon on Friday 26 November.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means that all direct flights from these countries to the UK are prohibited.
Anyone arriving in England between noon today and noon. 4 on Sundays from these countries – or who have been in the countries in the previous 10 days – must fill out a passenger search form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 1 p.m. 4 on Sunday, must stay at a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant carries mutations K417N and E484A, similar to those of the South African ‘Beta’ variant, which made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and the S477N, on the New York variant, which is also linked to antibody releases.
The variant also has the mutations P681H and N679K, which are ‘rarely seen together’ and can make it even more shock resistant.
And the mutation N501Y, which makes viruses more transmissible and has previously been seen on, among others, the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Researchers have warned that the new strain will make the vaccines 40 percent less effective.
But they said the advent of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster plug the moment people become eligible for one.
The vaccines release neutralizing antibodies, which are the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
What is the name of the variant?
The tribe is scientifically known as B.1.1.529, but has not yet been given a name based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
The variants that have so far been given an official name include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts in the World Health Organization are holding emergency meetings on the variant today, where it is expected to be named. It could be called the ‘Now’ variant.