ONE person in London and another in the North West of England have caught the new coronavirus variant from South Africa.
The unidentified people are the first known in the UK to be diagnosed with the rapidly spreading strain.
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They are thought to have been in contact with people who have travelled between South Africa and the UK in recent weeks.
In response to the arrival of the "more infectious" new strain, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has ordered anyone who has been in South Africa in the past two weeks to quarantine immediately.
Anyone who has been in contact with those travellers must also quarantine and have “no contact with anybody else”.
At a Downing Street press briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Hancock said the South African variant is highly concerning because it is “more transmissible than the new variant discovered in the UK”.
The UK’s new variant – which scientists say is 70 per cent more easily spread – is already “out of control” and led to the invention of the new Tier 4, of which 43 per cent of the England population are in.
The South African strain — known as 501.V2 — has been blamed for the surge of a second wave there, with upwards of 9,000 cases recorded per day.
The country’s Health Minister said the variant appears to cause more disease in young people.
However this has not been scientifically proven – it may be that young people are more likely to break Covid restrictions, and therefore are picking up the virus more frequently.
At this point, the symptoms appear to be the same as the usual Covid – a loss of taste and smell, continuous cough, and high temperature.
The disease can also cause fatigue, a headache, diarrhoea, muscle pain, and delirium in older patients.
It is not clear if it causes more severe disease, and therefore deaths.
The mutations in this virus means it's possible it can reinfect a person who has already recovered from Covid-19, according to Professor Peter Horby, who heads the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).
It may also make vaccines less effective, because the immune system does not recognise the new variant when it infects the body.
But both of these factors need to be investigated deeply before conclusions can be made.
The same is the case for the UK strain, and Public Health England scientists will be studying this. However it could take weeks for answers.
Professor Horby told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “[The South African variant] is a concern because for two reasons; one, it’s rapidly become dominant, so it would appear it may be more transmissible than the other earlier viruses.
“But also it’s got quite a lot of mutations in what we call the receptor binding domain, which is the part of the virus which is critical for infection and antibody responses.
“Those two reasons are why this virus is a worry, it may be more infectious and so make control difficult, and these three mutations in the receptor binding domain may have an effect on the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus.
“So that may mean it's easier to get reinfected, and it may mean antibody-based therapies and vaccines are less effective.
“We don't know that for sure until the lab experiments are done, but the structural data would suggest that's a possibility.”
He said that it was important to control the new strain because the UK one has proven that once it has spread, it is hard to control.
A pattern emerging
The events that have unfolded in the past week – the discovery of two new variants of the killer coronavirus – have served as a warning of what is next to come in the pandemic, scientists have suggested.
Mutations in viruses are a natural part of their evolution, and are expected.
As they change, they can gain mutations that give them a new advantage – a better ability to spread, cause death or evade vaccines.
Prof Horby said: “We have to be ready for future variants like this.
“It's clearly a pattern that's emerging, that we will see different viruses and some of them will be a concern.”
Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis, University of Bath, said: “It appears we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of this pandemic, making the effective roll out of the vaccines even more time-critical.”
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology, University of Nottingham, said Brits must “avoid panicking”.
He said: “We need to study the impact of mutations on virus behaviour, but until we have performed those important experiments we should avoid panicking.
“If we practice social distancing and limit interactions with others, then we will avoid spreading the virus, no matter what collection of mutations it has.”
UK strain plunges more into Tier 4
It comes as the rapid spread of the new UK variant, called *, caused mayhem in the days running up to Christmas.
Yesterday Mr Hancock announced more parts of the South East would be put into the new Tier 4 level, along with parts of the East of England.
The full list of places moving up a Tier
Moving into Tier 4:
Waverley in Surrey
Hampshire (apart from the New Forest) Portsmouth, Southampton.
Tier 2 – 3
Somerset including N Somerset
Isle of Wight
Tier 1 to 2
The six million people will wake up on Boxing Day morning under Tier 4, which has “stay at home” orders.
Already 18 million are under the effective lockdown from Sunday, and are not allowed to leave their home to see anyone else over Christmas.
It includes London, where the rate of new cases in London has more than doubled in a week from 300.8 to 619.7.
Mr Hancock said yesterday that the three tiered system was working before the new variant emerged.
Graphs presented at the Downing Street briefing showed how during lockdown, the old variant was declining in numbers, while the new variant was surging.
Tier 3 worked to lower case rates across the north of England over the past few weeks. However, the situation has continuously worsened in the south, where the mutant strain first emerged and then spread rampantly.
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