Fears as South African strain spreads
Fears are growing in the UK over the rapid spread of COVID-19 after the South African variant was detected in eight different parts of England in the past week - with none of the cases linked to international travel.
Health officials said on Monday they will ramp up testing in these areas as the mutant strain was identified in 11 cases during genomic sequencing carried out at random, triggering serious concerns over localised transmission.
It will see mobile and door-to-door testing carried out in areas that are home to around 80,000 people, including parts of London and the southeast, as well as the West Midlands, eastern and northwest England.
Even residents in these areas without coronavirus symptoms are being urged to get tested, in a break with usual UK protocol.
"It is vital that we do all we can to stop transmission of this variant and I strongly urge everyone in these areas to get tested, whether you have symptoms or not," UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement.
"We continue to closely monitor new variants, here and around the world, and in addition to our already extensive testing service, we are making surge testing capacity available to affected areas."
The highly contagious COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa is spreading rapidly around the world, and was last week detected for the first time in the United States, which has the highest numbers of cases and deaths in the world.
At least 13 people have tested positive for the strain in Australian hotel quarantine, and flights to New Zealand were suspended after the variant was identified in a traveller who had left hotel quarantine and toured the community north of Auckland.
The grave news comes as doctors warned of a potential "never-ending pandemic" if leaders fail to vaccinate the entire world, with new and virulent strains emerging to bring COVID-19 roaring back to life.
Scientists are concerned that the South African mutation could be partly resistant to current vaccines and antibody treatments, although Moderna and Pfizer said their jabs still work against the variant and AstraZeneca is due to provide an assessment in the coming days.
Variant B. 1.351, initially identified in South Africa, and Variant P. 1, found in Brazil, have begun to "harden" themselves against human antibodies, therapies and vaccines.
The UK has also been battered by its own highly contagious variant, which is thought to be between 30 and 90 per cent more deadly than the old one
Britain has so far detected 105 cases of the South African strain since in emerged late last year. It imposed a travel ban on flights and arrivals from South Africa in late December, but the new cases suggest this approach has failed to keep the mutation out of the country, in what could be a worrying sign for other countries.
However, in six of the eight places seeing new cases of the South African variant in the last week, the infections were found in single people rather than in clusters.
The UK reported 406 more COVID-19 deaths on Monday and 18,607 cases, with more than 34,000 people in hospital with the virus. Almost 9.3 million residents have now been vaccinated.
Originally published as Fears as South African strain spreads