British Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirms two people infected with the new variant are “contacts of cases who travelled” from South Africa. South African scientists believe the variant is more infectious and could hit younger people harder.

A pedestrian wearing a face mask or covering walks past a Covid-19 Tier 4 information sign in central London on December 23, 2020.
A pedestrian wearing a face mask or covering walks past a Covid-19 Tier 4 information sign in central London on December 23, 2020. (AFP)

A new, potentially more transmittable, variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 has been found in Britain in cases linked to South Africa.

South Africa's health department said last week that a new genetic mutation of the virus had been discovered and might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.

South African researchers believe the variant is likely to be more infectious, may hit young people harder, and could be slightly more resistant to vaccines, The Guardian reported on Thursday.

"Thanks to the impressive genomic capability of the South Africans, we've detected two cases of another new variant of coronavirus here in the UK," British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a media briefing.

"Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks," he said on Wednesday.

Britain is already trying to curb the spread of a mutated variant of the virus which is up to 70% more transmissible, and further studies are being carried out on the new variant. 

"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," he said.

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Close contacts of those with the new variant and all those who have been in South Africa in the last fortnight, or were in close contact with someone who had, must quarantine, he said.

UK halts flights from South Africa 

Britain's transport minister said he had ordered flights and arrivals from South Africa to be halted after confirmation that the mutated strain had spread to the UK.

"I’ve taken the decision to temporarily stop flights and arrivals entering England from South Africa from 9am tomorrow following an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus," Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

Countries around the world have in recent days closed their borders to both Britain and South Africa following the identification of the new, fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus.

Two variants, different mutations both more infectious

"So the new variant in the UK, which we've identified, is very different to the variant in South Africa, it's got different mutations," said Susan Hopkins from Public Health England.

"Both of them look like they're more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we've been studying that with great detail with academic partners. We're still learning about the South African variant."

She expressed confidence that the spread of the South Africa-linked variant would be controlled and said vaccines that have already been developed should be effective.

"We have no evidence at the moment that the vaccine will not work, so actually what that means in fact is that there's strong evidence that it will work, because the vaccine produces a strong immune response and it's broad and acts against lots of variation in the virus," she said. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies