New Covid Variant Most Worrying Yet, Top U.K. Adviser Warns
A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa is the “most worrying” yet, a senior U.K. health official said, after the government temporarily banned flights from the region to try to limit its spread.
Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the U.K. Health Security Agency, told BBC radio the variant, currently known as B.1.1.529, has about 30 mutations “that seem relevant” -- double the number seen in the highly-transmissible delta variant. Fears it could fuel new outbreaks and potentially evade vaccines sparked a wave of selling across global markets on Friday.
Though no cases of the new variant have been detected in the U.K., Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Friday it may pose “substantial risk” to public health. The warning comes at a time when daily coronavirus infections are again surging, with 47,240 reported nationwide on Thursday.
Even so, Javid said the government has no plans yet to tighten pandemic rules including on mask-wearing and other social-distancing measures. Describing it as a “fast-moving” situation, the minister said key characteristics of the variant, including the severity of the illness it causes, are still unknown.
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The government is relying on its vaccine booster program and light-touch social restrictions to keep a lid on the pandemic, and ministers regard the pressure on the National Health Service as sustainable -- there were 7,641 people hospitalized with Covid-19 as of Wednesday.
But even before news of the new variant emerged, there have been growing warnings from scientists that hospitals will come under severe pressure once flu outbreaks and other winter illnesses increase patient numbers.
Adam Finn, a member of the U.K. vaccine committee, told ITV on Friday that more information is needed on the new variant but that the potential need for tougher rules can not be ruled out.
“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,” he said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said at a regular briefing on Friday there is nothing in the current data that warrants a shift in approach, though the situation remains under review.
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