The World Health Organisation is convening an emergency meeting to consider designating the new B.1.1.529 Covid-19 mutation a “variant of concern” as governments ban incoming flights from South Africa, where at least 77 cases have been detected.
It came as the fast-spreading variant was detected in Europe for the first time, with Belgium announcing that a traveller who returned from Egypt on November 11 had tested positive for the strain.
As European governments scrambled to shut down travel, Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said the patient was an unvaccinated person who tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday.
WHO experts were convening in Geneva, Switzerland, for a special meeting to discuss how to respond to the mutation. If it is indeed labelled a variant of concern, it will be named “Nu” after the next available letter of the Greek alphabet.
Britain, Germany and Italy have announced bans on travellers entering from South Africa amid concern over the variant. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said air travel to affected countries should be cut off.
She said vaccine manufacturers were expected to adapt their products to new variants, if necessary, under their contracts with the EU.
Bahrain became the first Gulf state to suspend flights and restrict entry from travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini, the Bahrain News Agency reported.
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said nearly 100 sequences of the variant have been reported, and early analysis shows it has “a large number of mutations” requiring further study. This makes the spike protein dramatically different from those that the vaccines are engineered to target.
Watch: scientists raise concerns over 'Nu' Covid variant
Stock markets slid around 3 per cent, with market watchers expecting on Friday to see the worst reverses on the exchanges in more than a year.
Oil prices were hit, with US crude futures down 5.7 per cent to $73.96 a barrel and Brent crude down 4.66 per cent to $78.38, amid fresh demand fears.
As investors dashed for safe-haven assets, the yen jumped more than 1 per cent to around 113 per dollar, having languished earlier this week at five-year lows.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid Technical Lead at WHO, on Thursday said the number of mutations of a variant can have a serious impact on how the virus spreads.
“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations,” she said. “And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
She said it would take the WHO “a few weeks” to understand what impact the variant will have and it is currently being monitored.
She said the Technical Advisory Group on Covid Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts who advise the WHO on the virus, would discuss whether it should be deemed a “variant of concern” and named “Nu".
The EU's drug regulator said on Friday that it was closely monitoring the new B.1.1.529 Covid-19 variant, but it was too soon to tell if updated vaccines would be needed.
The European Medicines Agency said it needed more details to see if the strain, which has "numerous mutations", could evade the current four jabs authorised for the bloc.
"We are closely monitoring the newly emerged B.1.1.529 variant which presents numerous mutations in the Covid-19 spike protein," the Amsterdam-based EMA said. "Current information is insufficient to determine if this variant is going to spread significantly and to what extent it may evade the immunity received with vaccines."
Scientists in South Africa have detected more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to cells in the body, the country’s department of health said on Thursday. The variant has caused cases in South Africa to spike 93 per cent in a day.
Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said that B.1.1.529 was driving the recent rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa.
“The government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is, therefore, prudent,” he said. “However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.”
One patient in Israel has tested positive for B.1.1.529 after returning from Malawi, while a further two people are suspected of having it, the Israeli health ministry said.
Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said concerns the new coronavirus variant could “defeat the vaccine” prompted the revival of the UK's red list for travel.
He said that ministers acted “extremely fast” to ensure a “safety-first approach” to travel changes following an emergency meeting with chief medical officers.
“This is agreed across all of the United Kingdom and we have acted fast, it’s rather like the mink variant from Denmark last year, where we acted very quickly, within hours and we’re then able, once we’ve checked it out, to release things somewhat,” he said on BBC Breakfast.
“I hope that’s what this is, a pause rather than going backwards, but we can’t take risks when we see a variant which could well defeat the vaccine, or at least that’s the concern and we need just a bit of time to check that out.”
He said those who had flown to the UK from South Africa in recent days had been contacted by authorities asking them to take a PCR test and self-isolate upon arrival.
“The concern about this particular variant is that it is spreading very, very fast, its rate of growth has been very quick, we think the issue is probably [starting] from now, so we’re asking people to quarantine, self-isolate when they get home,” he added.
Ms von der Leyen said that she “proposes, in close co-ordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region”.
Her statement came as the EU is gripped by a fourth wave of Covid, which has forced some governments to tighten restrictions.
Coronavirus cases rose by 11 per cent in Europe in the past week, the WHO said, making it the only region in the world where infections are on rising.
The organisation’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.