A new strain of coronavirus that has reached Belgium after being discovered in South Africa has been designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation.
The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant, which the organisation named Omicron, has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is “huge international concern” surrounding the strain after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to limit its spread.
He told MPs there are concerns the variant may be more transmissible, make vaccines less effective and may affect one of the UK’s Covid treatments, Ronapreve.
Ministers were facing calls to go further to prevent a wave of Omicron arriving in Britain while a Delta surge is ongoing, as Belgium became the first EU country to announce a case.
Professor John Edmunds, who advises the Government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that could create a “very, very, very difficult situation”.
The EU, US and Canada all followed Britain’s move to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa ahead of the WHO adding the strain, also known as B.1.1.529, to its highest category for concerning variants.
Experts at the WHO said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.
No cases have been detected in the UK but its arrival in Belgium – after being found in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel – has heightened concerns.
Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the Rega Institute in Belgium, said a sample was confirmed as the variant in a traveller who returned from Egypt on November 11 before first showing symptoms 11 days later.
The six African countries were added to the UK’s travel red list on Thursday evening and passengers arriving in the UK from these countries from 4am on Sunday will be required to book and pay for a Government-approved hotel quarantine for ten days.
Downing Street urged anyone who has arrived from those countries recently to get tested.
Javid said discussions are ongoing over the prospect of adding further countries to the red list, telling the Commons the Government “won’t hesitate to act if we need to do so”.
Boris Johnson held a call with South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday afternoon after foreign minister Naledi Pandor said the flight ban “seems to have been rushed”.
The Prime Minister “commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing” and its “leadership in transparently sharing scientific data”, Downing Street said.
“They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel,” a statement said.
Prof Edmunds said the new strain “is a huge worry” and that “all the data suggests” it would be able to evade current immunity.
“Our fears are it would do so to a large extent,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
Prof Edmunds urged ministers to look at extending travel restrictions and to prepare a plan to deal with Omicron because “at some point we’re going to get this variant here in the UK”.
He suggested mass testing and local restrictions must be looked at while other preparations could include making the booster programme more rapid, perhaps by reducing the gap between second and third doses, and widening it to younger age groups.
“Even the vaccines don’t work particularly well against this new variant, they do against Delta, and we’re still fighting a Delta wave and we certainly don’t want to be fighting both at the same time,” he said.
“There are things we can do and we need to get on with it very rapidly.”
South African scientists fear the variant is behind a dramatic rise in cases in some regions, including Gauteng province, which includes the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
Experts have said vaccines can be tweaked to tackle new variants as they emerge.