By Eleanor Hayward Health Correspondent
What is the South African variant?
It was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province in mid-October.
Like the UK’s Kent variant, the mutant strain quickly became dominant and drove a ferocious second wave.
There are two key mutations that give it an advantage – these are called N501Y and E484K.
The N501Y mutation, which is also found in the Kent variant, means it can bind to cells more easily and is more infectious.
The E484K mutation is more worrying because it may help the virus evade antibodies, allowing reinfections and making vaccines less effective.
The variant was first seen in the UK before Christmas, prompting a travel ban on South Africa.
Why the sudden concern?
Around 105 cases have been found in the UK. Until yesterday, they could all be linked to international travel. But 11 have now been found in people who had not recently travelled abroad.
This suggests it has been spreading in the community, probably after infected people without symptoms flew in.
How widespread is it?
The 11 cases without links to international travel have been found in eight locations, ranging from London to the West Midlands and Merseyside. Most had no contact with each other, suggesting pockets of spread in several locations across England.
The true number of cases in the UK is likely to be considerably higher because the 11 cases were only identified due to the UK’s genomic sequencing programme, which tests a random sample of 5 to 10 per cent of all positive Covid-19 cases.
There is a ‘high probability’ that some of the remaining 95 per cent of positive cases were also the South African strain.
Is it more dangerous?
There is no evidence it is more deadly or makes people more ill. But it is more transmissible than the ‘original’ Covid-19 strain and spreads at a similar rate to the Kent variant, which is up to 70 per cent more infectious.
Of most concern is the high rate of mutations, which may help it ‘escape’ antibodies. Last month, researchers from South Africa found it contained mutations that may be resistant to immunity from earlier Covid infection.
Will the jabs still work?
Health officials have played down concerns that the South African variant could jeopardise the UK’s vaccination programme.
Initial evidence shows existing vaccines are slightly less effective against it, but still offer good protection. For example, the Novavax jab – of which the UK has secured 60million doses – was 60 per cent effective in South African trials, down from 89 per cent elsewhere. Janssen’s oneshot vaccine was 57 per cent effective in South Africa, compared to 72 per cent in the UK.
Tests are ongoing to see if the Pfizer and Oxford jabs – the two being used in the UK – are effective. Yesterday, Boris Johnson said he was ‘confident’ they will work against all variants. More lab results will be available soon.
What happens next?
Public Health England is in a race to break any chains of transmission to effectively rid the UK of the South African variant.
It has launched ‘surge testing’ in affected areas. All adults in eight postcodes – around 80,000 – will be offered tests this week whether or not they have symptoms.
Mobile testing units will be deployed and officials will go door to door urging people to be tested. Positive samples will undergo genomic sequencing to identify which variant they are.
Matt Hancock said: ‘The goal is to find every single case of it.’
Are there going to be stricter rules?
Not yet. However Mr Hancock said anyone living in the affected areas must take ‘extra special precautions’ and not go out.