Story at a glance

  • “I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” Hancock told the BBC’s “Today” program Monday.
  • Oxford University scientist John Bell said there is a “big question mark” over whether current vaccines would be effective against the South African strain due to changes in the structure of the protein.
  • Both Britain and South Africa have experienced a surge in cases in recent weeks following the discovery of the separate strains.

Health officials in the United Kingdom are voicing concerns about the new coronavirus variant that was first identified in South Africa. 

In a Monday interview on BBC radio, Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the strain from South Africa poses an even greater risk than a highly infectious variant first identified in the U.K. last month. At least two cases of the South African strain have been identified in Britain. 


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“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” Hancock told the BBC’s “Today” program Monday. 

“This is a very, very significant problem...and it’s even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant,” he said. 

Hancock’s comments come after Oxford University scientist John Bell, who worked on the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, said Sunday he believed vaccines would work on the British variant, but said there is a “big question mark” over whether current vaccines would be effective against the South African strain due to changes in the structure of the protein. 

“They both have multiple, different mutations in them, so they’re not a single mutation,” Bell told Times Radio. “And the mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the [virus’ spike] protein.” 

Bell, however, said it was unlikely the mutation would make the vaccines completely ineffective, but tweaks may need to be made to provide full protection against the virus. 

Much is still unknown about the strain known as 501.V2, but researchers in South Africa and elsewhere are working to determine the reliability of current vaccines against the variant. 

While both strains appear to be more contagious, there’s no evidence at this time suggesting they lead to more severe illness. 

Both Britain and South Africa have experienced a surge in cases in recent weeks following the discovery of the separate strains. 

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a new national lockdown for England as the U.K. recorded more than 58,000 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic. 


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Published on Jan 04, 2021