The B.1.1.529 variant, officially named the Omicron variant, was first found in the country and there are warnings that the new strain may be more transmissible than the Delta strain and current vaccines may be less effective against it.
Alongside South Africa, nine other African countries have been added to the red travel list.
The countries are Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said there are concerns the new coronavirus variant could “defeat the vaccine”.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said that ministers acted “extremely fast” to ensure a “safety-first approach” to travel changes following an emergency meeting with chief medical officers.
He added: “This is agreed across all of the United Kingdom and we have acted fast, it’s rather like the mink variant from Denmark last year, where we acted very quickly, within hours and we’re then able, once we’ve checked it out, to release things somewhat.
“I hope that’s what this is, a pause rather than going backwards, but we can’t take risks when we see a variant which could well defeat the vaccine, or at least that’s the concern and we need just a bit of time to check that out.”
What is the Omicron variant?
This variant was first found in South Africa, and has been dubbed “the worst one we’ve seen so far” by officials.
Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, described it as “very different” to other variants, such as the Delta variant.
He said that it has “an unusual constellation of mutations”, adding: “This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump on evolution and many more mutations that we expected.”
Compared to the Delta variant’s two mutations, the Omicron variant has 10.
How many cases of the Omicron variant are in the UK?
Currently, there are 22 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the UK.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that nine cases of the Omicron variant were found in Scotland, and had all been linked to the same private event on 20 November.
Public Health Scotland is still examining any potential link between the Omicron variant in Scotland and COP26, but Sturgeon said no connection has so far been found.
The remaining 13 cases have been found in England.
Uk Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned that more cases were likely to be found over the coming days.
He said: Sajid Javid said: “The cases that we identified at the start of the weekend, we were able to confirm quickly that they were linked to travel to South Africa. They were also part of one sort of family cluster.
“The recent cases that we’ve confirmed today, we’re not able to say whether or not, at this point … we don’t know, we’re doing that work right now at speed to determine whether they all have a link to South Africa or not.
“Is there likely to be community transmission? I think we have to be realistic, there is likely to be, as we’re seeing in other European countries.
“And also, as I said earlier … we would expect cases to rise as we now actively look for cases, because now having identified the variant and our concerns around it, UKHSA is actively looking back at anyone who’s travelled to South Africa over the last 10 days or so, and searching for these cases and taking action of course if they find them.”
What are the symptoms of the Omicron strain?
The Omicron strain has slightly different symptoms to that of the Delta variant or the original Covid-19 virus.
The symptoms identified so far include:
- scratchy throat
- extreme tiredness
- body aches
The good news however is that the symptoms appears to be mild and are ale to be treated at home.
Unlike previous strains, there have been no reports of people losing their sense of smell or taste and there have been no drop in oxygen levels.
Will vaccines work against the Omicron variant?
Scientists have fears over this new strain because of the unpredictability of whether it will be able to evade immunity built up by vaccines or previous Covid-19 infections.
The concern comes after they found that the B.1.2.529 variant is extremely different to the original Covid-19 virus that emerged in Wuhan, China.
Because of the drastically different make-up of the strain, it is unclear whether the vaccines will be able to fight the Omicron variant in the same way, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirming that it is not yet clear if it can evade current vaccines.
The UK Government has confirmed that the vaccine and booster programme has been ramped up in defence against the Omicron stain , with boosters now available for all adults over the age of 18 with at least a three month gap since their last vaccine.
Is the Omicron variant more infectious than other strains?
Unfortunately, scientists believe that this new variant may be the most transmissible yet.
Prof Richard Lessells, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said: “They give us concern this virus might have enhanced transmissibility, enhanced ability to spread from person to person, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system.”
WHO has also said that there be a higher chance of re-infection with the Omicron variant.
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