A new super mutant Covid variant that has sparked fears of another lockdown in the UK may have emerged in a HIV patient in Africa, is the most-evolved version yet and could make jabs much weaker.
Scientists believe that its extensive mutations mean it must have originated in a severely immunocompromised patient, possibly an undiagnosed person with AIDS.
It has more than 30 mutations, giving it all the transmissibility of the currently-dominant Delta strain and the same ability to escape vaccines as the old South African variant Beta.
Experts fear the new variant – called B.1.1.529 – will make the vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective, because it is so well equipped to dodge the protection they provide.
Britons have been put on alert that there could be a Christmas lockdown, with one of No10’s vaccine advisers warning ‘we all need to be ready’ for restrictions to be reimposed.
Here is everything we know about the variant so far:
What is so concerning about the variant?
Not much is known yet about the new strain, but the number of mutations it carries has alarmed scientists.
The variant has more than 30 mutations — twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Lots of the changes are centred on the spike protein. This protein is what the current crop of Covid vaccines trigger the body to respond to, so it can recognise and fight off the virus if it comes into contact with it.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario, because the new version of the virus is better at dodging the protection they provide.
It also includes mutations that allow it to spread more easily.
One scientist said it was the worst variant they have seen so far.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalisations and deaths for up to six weeks.
Will it affect Christmas in the UK?
Experts said it will be weeks until they know how worrying the new variant is, so it is not yet clear what extra steps might need to be taken.
The only action measures introduced by the Government so far has been to add six countries to the red list.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said new restrictions cannot be ruled out.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.”
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in four countries: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa.
The first case was uploaded to an international variant database by Hong Kong and was spotted by someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.
What is the UK doing about the variant?
The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
What is the variant called?
The strain is known scientifically as B.1.1.529, but has not yet been given a name based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization are holding emergency meetings about the variant today, during which it is expected to be named. It could be called the ‘Nu’ variant.