Britain today banned travel to South Africa after discovering two cases of a mutant Covid-19 which has been is driving a massive second wave among young people in the country.
The mutant, called 501.V2, was announced in Cape Town last Friday and is believed to be a more extreme variant than Britain’s new Covid strain which has plunged millions into miserable Christmas lockdowns.
Cases in South Africa have soared from fewer than 3,000 a day at the start of December to more than 9,500 per day, with the mutant accounting for up to 90 percent of those new infections.
More than 8,500 have been hospitalised – surpassing the country’s first wave peak of 8,300 inpatients.
Matt Hancock said: ‘This new variant is highly concerning, because it is yet more transmissible, and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant has been discovered in the UK.’
Travel operators started flying out to South Africa from London at the beginning of October.
Virgin Atlantic began running four weekly flights between London and Johannesburg on October 18, while two flights have arrived from Cape Town since Monday.
The company flies Boeing 787-9 aircraft to South Africa carrying 290 people on each trip – meaning more than 11,000 people could traveled under normal conditions – however, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely reduced the number of passengers taking trips.
British Airways has been running seven weekly journeys to Johannesburg and Cape Town since October 1.
It means more than 100 BA and Virgin Atlantic flights have traveled between the two countries since flights resumed.
Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel and Mauritius have banned flights from South Africa in an effort to stop the spread of the mutant which is thought to be giving young people more acute symptoms than other variants.
Britain and South Africa are both suffering resurgences of coronavirus which they are blaming on newly-identified mutations of the disease
South Africa’s coronavirus mutant is driving a second wave and more than 8,500 have been hospitalised – surpassing the country’s first wave peak of 8,300 inpatients
Britain has already imposed sweeping Tier 4 lockdown measures to curb the spread of a mutated strain of the virus which is up to 70% more transmissible, and further studies are ongoing.
South African doctors say their patients are younger and do not always have other conditions that amplify the virus’ effect, but are nonetheless suffering from more severe forms of Covid-19.
South African Health minister Zweli Mkhize said the new strain appeared to spread faster, but that it was too early to tell its severity and whether current vaccines would work against it.
‘The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,’ Mkhize added.
The mutant strain was first noticed amid rising Covid-19 cases, which the country had not predicted to see until its winter began in April next year.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira told CBS News that rising cases had been spotted along the South African coast.
Prof de Oliveira warned: ‘Maybe the virus is beginning to outsmart us.’
The number of daily new confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million people have rocketed in South Africa since the start of the month, while the UK’s remains considerably higher
A high number of tests are yielding positive results, according to seven-day rolling averages in both the UK and South Africa
Covid-19 infections and deaths are rising in both South Africa and the UK. Britain announced 39,237 cases today as well as 744 deaths
The average daily COVID hospital admissions in Britain are around 1,909 a day, Matt Hancock confirmed today. Last week’s figures from South Africa showed numbers were growing and were at around 500
Covid-19 cases are rising across all regions of South Africa amid concern over a new strain which was first spotted along its coast
He added: ‘We are quite concerned, not only for South Africa, but also for the rest of Africa.
‘Our health system has been has been affected by 20 years of HIV and TB epidemics, so we are quite concerned that while Africa may have escaped the first wave quite successfully, if it doesn’t become more strict and try to control this virus, we may not escape this this second wave as successfully as we did in the first one.’
The mutation means the country may see ‘many more cases’ in the new wave than it experienced in the first surge of the disease.
Young people have hit the headlines in South Africa for fuelling the spread of the new strain with raves and parents have been criticised for not keeping their children under stricter control.
Super-spreader events including football tournaments, weddings, street parties and pub sessions have been widely reported on social media.
Mutations in viruses are to be expected – more than 4,000 different strains of coronavirus have already been tracked – but genomics experts look out for critical changes to the spike proteins which can alter how people suffer from the disease.
‘In the UK they have also identified a new variant… there are quite a few similarities between the two lineages… there are also a similar number of mutations,’ said Professor Tulio de Oliviera, a member of Cape Town’s genomics consortium.
The two cases of the South African variant discovered in Britain were found in London and the North West.
The fact that they were detected through random routine sampling which picks out only around one in 10 tests carried out – and that they are thought to have been infected by separate travellers – suggests there are many more cases of the variant already in Britain.
Britain has been leading the world in tracking changes to the virus so it is likely that many more such mutants are already widespread.
The British mutant has already appeared in samples taken by scientists in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia.
But in the case of the British variant, scientists have expressed confidence that the mutation will not impact the efficacy of the vaccine.
This is because when the body produced antibodies to a virus it does so for large chunks of its genetic data, meaning that a more significant mutation would be required to defeat the vaccine.
Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘This new variant is highly concerning, because it is yet more transmissible, and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant has been discovered in the UK.’
A mother holds her young child as they wait for food during a feeding scheme and food hand out by NGO ‘Hunger has no religion’ in Coronationville, Johannesburg, South Africa, today
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.
‘We are working with them with our SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution working group,’ said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, using the full name for the virus.
‘They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.’
Like Britain, South Africa has found itself isolated by a series of travel bans following the discovery of the new strain.
Aviation experts said they expected more airlines and countries to follow suit, at least until more was known.
A hospital nurse performs a coronavirus test in Richmond, Johannesburg, last Friday with cases and deaths rising in South Africa
Passengers wait in line at a Johannesburg airport on Monday as South Africa, like Britain, finds itself isolated by coronavirus-related travel bans
South Africa’s tourism department said it had no information on numbers of flights cancelled or rescheduled due to the bans, but that it was working with the foreign ministry and foreign embassies to facilitate contact between foreign citizens in South Africa and their governments.
South Africa has been affected more by the coronavirus than other countries on the continent, and as of Tuesday had seen 940,212 cases and 25,246 deaths.
After a July peak in which cases were regularly rising by more than 10,000 per day, the numbers had fallen as low as 1,500 per day by mid-November.
But they have since come surging back again, and deaths have also risen from a typical 93 per day a month ago to 226 per day now.
The 339 new deaths added to the tally on Tuesday marked the highest single-day jump since the end of the first wave.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has said there will be no hard lockdown this time but there are early closures for pubs and bars and curtailed hours for alcohol sales.
Ramaphosa has also ordered the closing of popular beaches during the festive season, which falls in the Southern Hemisphere summer.