Work is underway to investigate the possibility of fine-tuning vaccines against the worrisome new strain of coronavirus that has triggered travel bans.
The variant, named Omicron and designated a âvariant of concernâ by the World Health Organization (WHO), reached Belgium after being discovered in South Africa.
The WHO has warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of re-infection and may spread faster than other strains.
A number of pharmaceutical companies have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there was “huge international concern” over the strain after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to limit its spread.
Mr Javid told MPs there were concerns the variant would be more transmissible, make existing vaccines less effective and could hinder one of the UK’s Covid treatments, Ronapreve.
Ministers were facing calls to go further to prevent a wave of the new variant from arriving in Britain as a Delta wave is underway, with Belgium becoming the first EU country to announce a case.
Professor John Edmunds, who advises the government on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that this could create a “very, very, very difficult situation.”
The EU, US and Canada all followed Britain’s decision to impose travel restrictions on visitors to southern Africa before the WHO added the strain, also known as of B.1.1.529, to its highest category for variants of concern.
WHO experts have said there is early evidence suggesting that Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.
Novavax said it “has already started the development of a novel advanced recombinant protein based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529 and will be ready to start testing and manufacturing in the coming weeks.”
Moderna said: âSince the start of 2021, Moderna has put forward a comprehensive strategy to anticipate the new variants of concern.
“This strategy includes three levels of response if the currently authorized booster dose of 50 Âµg (micrograms) mRNA-1273 is insufficient to enhance the waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”
Pfizer and BioNTech said that in the event of a variant that could escape the effects of the vaccines, the company expects “to be able to develop and produce a bespoke vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to l ‘regulatory approval’.
No cases of the new strain have been detected in the UK, but its arrival in Belgium – after being discovered in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel – has heightened concerns.
Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the Rega Institute in Belgium, said a sample was confirmed to be variant in a traveler who returned from Egypt on November 11 before showing symptoms for the first time 11 days later.
The six African countries were added to the UK travel red list on Thursday evening and passengers arriving in the UK from those countries from 4 a.m. on Sunday will be required to book and pay for an approved hotel quarantine. by the government for 10 days.
Downing Street urged anyone who has recently arrived from these countries to get tested.
Mr Javid said discussions were underway on the prospect of adding more countries to the red list, telling the Commons that the government “will not hesitate to act if we need to”.
Boris Johnson had a telephone interview with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday afternoon after Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the flight ban “appeared to have been rushed”.
The Prime Minister “commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing” and its “leadership in transparent sharing of scientific data,” Downing Street said.
“They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new variant of Covid-19 and ways to work together to address it and reopen international travel,” a statement read.
Professor Edmunds said the new strain “is of huge concern” and that “all data suggests” that it would be able to evade current immunity.
“We are concerned that it will to a large extent,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM program.
Professor Edmunds urged ministers to consider extending travel restrictions and to prepare a plan to deal with Omicron because “at some point we will have this variant here in the UK”.