Concerns raised about new Covid-19 variant detected by South African scientists

As many as 90 per cent of new cases in SA’s Gauteng province could be B.1.1.529

European Union residents will need to have Covid-19 vaccine booster jabs if they want to travel to another country in the bloc next summer free of tests or quarantines, the European Commission has proposed. Video: EU Commission

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Concerns have been raised about a new Covid-19 variant detected by South African scientists.

The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant has rapidly increased in the most populated province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces, they said.

South Africa confirmed about 100 specimens as B.1.1.529 but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa. As many as 90 per cent of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, scientists believe.

On foot of the announcement, UK authorities said they were stepping up screening of travellers from South Africa.

The Department of Foreign Affairs was asked for comment on Thursday night but was unable to say how it planned to respond.

Meanwhile, the HSE said it was preparing to open three more Covid-19 testing centres and was adding more mobile testing teams to meet the unprecedented demand from the public during the latest surge in infections.

Tests

Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE, said it was “extremely challenging” dealing with the demand for Covid-19 tests and he appreciated the frustration felt by people waiting for tests.

Resources in the health system were “not elastic” and “not infinite”, he said, and that while the HSE had increased Covid-19 testing capacity, there were “limits” to what it could do.

About 210,000 Covid-19 laboratory tests have processed over the last seven days and that routine community testing had been scaled up to “surge capacity” of 20,000 a day from 15,000.

Damien McCallion, the HSE’s national lead for testing, said that it had its busiest day for community testing on Tuesday with more than 27,000 appointments recorded.

In addition, the HSE was carrying out 5,000 Covid-19 tests a day through the hospital system.

“There is a huge volume going through but we do acknowledge there are people who are having to wait for a test. It’s an anxious time when you’re doing that,” he said.

Regardless of the wait time for a test, he advised people to stay at home and restrict their movements until they were symptom-free for at least 48 hours.

Boosters

The HSE has started offering walk-in clinics for Covid-19 booster vaccines to people in their 60s and to healthcare workers at designated times through its vaccination centres.

In a speed-up of the booster programme, the walk-in clinics will be available to eligible groups once it has been at least five months since their second dose of a Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca jab in their initial vaccinations, or three months since the individual received the single Janssen vaccine.

It comes as the Department of Health said that there have been 4,764 confirmed new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday. As of 8am on Thursday, 598 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, of which 126 were in ICU.

A local area breakdown showed Drogheda remained the State’s worst affected location for Covid-19 for the second week in a row, despite the rate of infections dropping in the Co Louth town last week.

In Northern Ireland, a further five people with Covid-19 have died and 1,549 additional cases were confirmed on Thursday.

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