Coronavirus health warnings are seen in the arrivals hall after at London Heathrow Airport in west London. Photo: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
As we glean more information about the newer strains of coronavirus, countries are clamping down and closing borders, in an attempt to curb the spread. Experts say that while it is completely normal for a virus to mutate and variants to emerge, the new strains must be closely monitored to ensure there is no further stress on hospitals or a rise in the death rate.
What are the new coronavirus variants?
The main virus mutations that scientists are concerned with are on the spike protein of the virus, that is, the part that allows it to enter human cells. About 4,000 spike protein mutations have been detected at different points in the pandemic. Most of them have not changed the way the virus behaves, and so have not been a cause for worry. A few new variants are now emerging, that scientists are closely tracking:
- A UK variant has spread to many parts of Britain and believed to be in more than 50 other countries, including India, Italy and Australia
- A South Africa variant, that has been found in 20 other countries, including Taiwan, China and Canada
- A Brazil variant detected in Tokyo, UK
- A Japan variant, similar to those in the UK and South Africa, but different enough to be noted as a new strain
Why are we worried about the new variants?
Experts believe that the fact that these mutations have rapidly become so dominant could mean that they may be more infectious. The new variant in the UK, that has led to lockdowns across the country is believed to be 70% more infectious than the current version doctors are battling.
The South Africa variant is believed to have emerged in October. In both the UK and South African variants, the changes in the virus seem to have increased its ability to propagate. According to experts, the new strains are not likely to interfere with the efficacy of the vaccines. However, the medical community is closely tracking the mutations. According to Dr Julian W Tang, Honorary Associate Professor/Clinical Virologist at the University of Leicester, “This [the new strains] does not mean that the existing COVID-19 vaccines will not work at all, just that the antibodies induced by the current vaccines may not bind and neutralise the South African variant as well as it would the other circulating viruses – including the UK variant.”
What does this mean for travel?
UK’s travel ban
The UK has imposed a ban on direct flights from South Africa and restrictions on flights to the country. Anyone who has travelled there recently, and anyone they have been in contact with, have been told to quarantine. The UK has also announced a ban on flights from South America, Portugal and Cape Verde.
The new travel ban in the UK also applies to people who have travelled from, or via the countries of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela in the last 10 days.
US travel guidelines
Recently, the US announced that they will begin requiring all international travellers—including returning US citizens—to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in order to board a flight to the country. The move will go into effect on January 26, according to a new order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also recommends getting tested again three to five days after arriving in the US and quarantining at home for seven days post-travel.
Japan’s ban on business travel
The Japanese government has decided to restrict the entry of all foreign nationals who do not reside in Japan. Officials have also halted business travel agreements with 11 countries including China and South Korea, in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As we learn more about the new variants of the virus and if infections climb, it will be likely that more countries will impose similar travel bans to restrict the spread of these variants of coronavirus.