'Highly Concerning' COVID Strain Sees England Ban Travel From South Africa

The British government has banned travelers from South Africa from entering England after a "highly concerning" new variant of COVID was found in the U.K.

The measure came into place at 9 a.m. GMT Thursday, and reflected an "increased risk from a new strain of coronavirus" named 501.V2, according to a Department for Transport news release. Travelers who had passed through South Africa in the past 10 days were included in the ban.

The news came as the U.K. tried to deal with a separate strain of the coronavirus, B.1.1.7, that is thought to be better at spreading than previous forms, and has triggered lockdowns in London, parts of the south east, and the east of England.

British and Irish nationals, visa holders and permanent residents could enter England from South Africa if they self-isolated for 10 days with their household. The ban and self-isolation measures would be kept under review.

The ban was "critical to prevent further domestic infection," Department for Transport news release said.

It was put in place after Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed at a press conference on Wednesday that the U.K. had detected two cases of the new 501.V2 variant from South Africa "over the past few weeks."

He said: "This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the U.K."

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, U.K., said in a statement: "The mutation that has cropped in Africa has been seen before, and we have no idea whether it impacts on virus transmissibility or immunity.

"We need to study the impact of mutations on virus behavior, 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."

Andrew Preston, a researcher in microbial pathogenesis at the U.K.'s University of Bath, said in a statement the two variants "both contain an unusually high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages." Some affect the the spike protein that the virus uses to enter the body, "which is cause for concern."

He said: "It is critical to act quickly to ring-fence a high-transmission infection to prevent it from becoming established, so the precautionary quarantine of those who may have come into contact with the South Africa variant is vital for this."

Preston said the U.K. has carried out surveillance of the genetic material of different strains throughout the pandemic "and thus was well placed to identify the new variant early during its rise.

"In other countries that do not have this capacity, it is quite possible that these variants are already in circulation, but currently unidentified. It appears we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of this pandemic, making the effective roll out of the vaccines even more time-critical."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said B.1.1.7 has not been detected in the U.S., but it may be circulating in the country as the genetic make-up of a relatively small number of cases had been mapped.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Monday the U.S. must make the assumption that B.1.1.7 has arrived in the U.S.

"When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the U.K., there are also mutations that we're seeing in South Africa, and given travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it's already here. When we start to look for it we're gonna find it," he said.

Cronavirus CDC
An illustration shows the shape of coronaviruses. The U.K. has banned travellers from South Africa amid fears about a new strain of COVID. CDC