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New COVID variant: Should we panic?  

Dr Kereng Masupu

The United Kingdom has justified why it took a decision to ban direct flights Botswana following reports that a deadly COVID-19 variant which scientists fear could evade vaccine was detected in the country. 

Reports indicate that fears are growing that the new Botswana COVID-19 variant is the most mutated version of the COVID-19 virus today. The first infection were reported in Botswana followed by six cases in South Africa and one in Hong Kong bringing the number to 10 thus far. As a precautionary measure, the UK 

The UK Government explained that it was taking decisive precautionary action against a new COVID-19 variant by introducing travel restrictions on arrivals from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia from midday tomorrow (Friday 26 November).

“It (variant) comes as Variant B.1.1.529 is declared a Variant under Investigation (VuI) by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). The variant includes a large number of spike protein mutations as well as mutations in other parts of the viral genome. These are potentially biologically significant mutations which may change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility. More investigation is required,” the UK Government said. 

The UK added that no cases have been identified in the UK. “We’ve always maintained public safety is our number one priority, which is why we’ve kept in place measures which allow us to protect the UK from new variants. We’re taking this early precautionary action now to protect the progress made across the country, and will continue to keep a close eye on the situation as we continue into the winter,” UK government Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said when justifying the reasons for banning flights from Botswana and other neighbouring countries.

The UK Government also announced that from midday Friday 26 November, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia will be added to the UK’s travel red list. 

“Direct flights from the six countries will be banned from midday Friday until hotel quarantine is up and running from 4am Sunday 28 November. Precautionary move follows designation of a new Variant under Investigation by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA),” the UK Government said in an announcement. 

It said passengers arriving from 4am Sunday in England will be required to book and pay for a government-approved hotel quarantine facility for 10 days.

The UK Government also sad British nationals arriving from these six Southern Africa countries between midday Friday and 4am Sunday, and who have been in these countries within the last 10 days, must quarantine at home for 10 days and take NHS PCR tests on Day 2 and Day 8, even if they already have a lateral flow test booking.

“A temporary ban on commercial and private planes travelling from the six countries will also come into force at midday on Friday until 4am Sunday to reduce the risk of importing this new variant under investigation while hotel quarantine is stood up. This excludes cargo and freight without passengers,” the UK Government said. 

 “The UK government thanks the government of South Africa for its surveillance of this variant and its transparency,” the UK Government said without mentioning anything on Botswana which has since issued a press release informing members of the public about the latest development. Meanwhile Botswana’s Presidential COVID-19 Task Force said in a statement that four cases of the new variant were detected among travelers and did not name which countries they were travelling from.  

An observer said this could have rubbed the UK government the wrong as failure by Botswana to disclose the identities of the nationals who tested positive for the new variant (B1.1.529) constituted non-transparency hence its decision not to acknowledge Botswana’s recent public announcement about the detection of virus.

“The preliminary report revealed that all the four had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. As part of the continuing investigations into the virus to establish and contain its local transmissions, contact tracing has revealed close contacts who are currently awaiting their results,” said Coordinator of Presidential COVID-19 Task Force Dr Kereng Masupu.

This new virus was detected on four foreign nationals who had entered Botswana on the 7th November 2021, on a diplomatic mission. The quartet tested positive for COVID-19 on the 11th November 2021 as they were preparing to return. Further genomic sequencing that was conducted on the samples confirmed the virus as B. 1. 1. 529 on 24 November 2021. 

A statement from the Ministry reads, “Immediate results of the ongoing investigations show that the new virus has many mutations, some of which have previously been characterised. The ministry is conducting further investigations and sample analysis to gain more knowledge and understanding about the properties and behaviour of this virus. Contrary to speculations and in some cases insinuations by some that the variant was only detected in Botswana, the truth is that the variant has so far been detected in other countries in Africa and beyond. 

Although all the four cases have since left the country, contact tracing is ongoing. All contacts who have so far been identified in the country, have no COVID-19 symptoms and have tested negative for COVID-19. As already indicated, more intimate and complex analysis of new COVID-19 positive cases are being conducted to search any trace of this new virus. Since this is a new development, information on the virus is still evolving and no major conclusions can be drawn as yet”.

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