UK detects South African coronavirus variant in people with no travel links

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A health worker in safety gear.
Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images
  • Britain has rolled out urgent testing after 11 people in eight different regions of England tested positive for the South African coronavirus variant.
  • The positive cases have no links to people who have travelled.
  • Government said the 11 cases were self-isolating.

Eleven people in different regions of England have tested positive for the South African coronavirus variant without having any links to people who have travelled, prompting mass testing in the areas to contain the outbreak.

Britain, with the fifth-highest Covid-19 death toll in the world, has moved to tighten its borders out of concern that new variants of the virus will undermine its vaccination drive.

To contain the new outbreaks, residents in eight areas of the country will now be tested whether or not they are showing any symptoms, a process known as "surge testing".

There are about 10 000 people in each area. Three are in London, two in the southeast, one in central England, one in the east and another in the northwest.

The government said on Monday the 11 cases were self-isolating and contact tracing would help to halt the spread.

Positive tests in the areas will be sequenced to identify any further spread of the South African variant, the government statement said.

All viruses mutate, and scientists have identified several variants of the coronavirus found to be more transmissible than the original strain.

Their emergence has raised questions over whether vaccines will prove as effective in containing them.

Britain said on 24 January it had detected 77 cases of the South African variant and nine cases of the Brazilian variant, but said all were linked to travel.

In total, Public Health England said it had now identified 105 cases of the South African variant since 22 December.

Scientists have said the South African variant appears to be more transmissible, but there is no evidence it causes more severe disease. But several laboratory studies have found that it reduces vaccine and antibody therapy efficacy.

Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said there was emerging evidence to suggest the variant was less susceptible to immunity induced by the current crop of vaccines.

"The discovery of a handful of cases with no links to travel to Africa, indicates that it might be more widespread in the community than previously thought," he said.

"This spread, even if small in scale, needs to be brought under control quickly, so Public Health England's house-to-house checks, and intensive testing are the right thing to do."

Britain is battling a new wave of Covid-19 turbo-charged by the emergence in September of a more transmittable variant found in the southeast of England.

The country's official death toll passed 100 000 last week. Britain is however making rapid progress in its vaccination programme, with nearly 9 million people receiving the first shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot.

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