The public need to be ready for a change in Covid restrictions in the wake of the new South African variant, a JCVI scientist has warned.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said more needs to be learned about the new variant to assess its threat level – but said new restrictions cannot be ruled out.
Speaking on Good Morning Britain, Prof Finn said he was unable to predict whether the emergence of the variant could affect Christmas.
He said: “On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.”
Prof Finn said that a rise in cases in South Africa, where the variant originated, could be linked to the variant’s enhanced transmissibility.
He said: “We now need to wait and see just what kind of threat this new variant may pose.
“If we’re lucky, it won’t be a serious one, but it could be very serious.”
He added that sequencing is being carried out across the UK to determine whether any cases of the variant have already been imported.
“There are a number of things going on now to understand this, to look for it, to trace it, to hopefully stamp it out if it is already here”, he said.
The government placed six African countries on a new travel red list yesterday evening amid concerns about the variant.
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Lesotho will be placed on the red-list, meaning travellers from those countries will have to spend 10 days in a quarantine hotel.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the delta variant and added “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.
Asked what the new variant meant for Britain in the run up to Christmas, Mr Javid said: "We’ve got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans – the so-called Plan B.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the new variant is the most "complex" and "worrying" seen thus far.
She said: "The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.
"And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation, there’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.
"So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite its definitely the most complex variant before."
She added: "It is the most worrying we’ve seen."
The B.1.1.529 variant has been found in 77 cases in South Africa, four in Botswana, and one in Hong Kong, in a patient who had recently visited South Africa.