From discovery to global panic in 48 hours: how a supermutant variant led to a worldwide travel ban

Omicron variant timeline

  • Monday 22 November: Variant found in Hong Kong, Botswana and South Africa
  • tuesday 23 november: British scientist sounds the alarm over ‘horrific’ 32 mutations
  • Wednesday 24 November: Downing Street claims tension is not a ‘problem’ but ministers meet behind the scenes
  • Thursday 25 November: Cases rise in South Africa and Britain issues flight ban
  • Friday 26 November: Tribe found in Belgium and countries around the world close borders

The world closed off from southern Africa today in response to a supermutant variant that was unheard of just a few days ago.

B.1.1.529 – now called Omicron – was first collected in Hong Kong on Monday from a patient who had traveled from South Africa.

It only received international attention on Wednesday after British scientists cited 32 ‘horrific’ mutations on social media after cases in Botswana and South Africa were also picked up.

Boris Johnson’s spokesman said Wednesday afternoon that the variant was not a “problem” despite warnings from British experts that it had a horrific array of mutations that could allow it to evade vaccines.

On Thursday, the South African government was forced to warn the world of the tension during a dismal press conference, admitting it had caused an “exponential” rise in the province of Guateng and likely in every corner of the country, Delta with savage speed surpassed.

The UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) said it was monitoring the situation closely but did not pose a threat to the UK at the time. Chris Whitty and other leading experts warned of a possible global outbreak that could undermine Britain’s vaccine programme.

Journalists were briefed Thursday evening by senior scientists at a hastily organized briefing where they were told the variant was at least 40 percent more vaccine-avoiding than Delta.

The media was told the strain was the worst “ever seen” and that the variant could be at least 40 percent more vaccine evasive.

At the same time, an emergency meeting of the Covid committee convened to discuss Britain’s next steps to tackle the variant.

It led to a quick announcement last night by Health Minister Sajid Javid that a travel ban would apply to six African countries in the south of the continent.

And scientists took to the airwaves this morning to warn of the possible return of draconian Covid restrictions this winter due to the tension.

New cases were picked up in Israel and then Belgium and European countries began closing their borders to people arriving from South Africa, with passengers unable to exit the plane in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Here MailOnline discusses how the Botswana variant inspired the global pandemic within 48 hours…

Monday and Tuesday

Researchers in Hong Kong were the first to sound the alarm about the new strain Monday after discovering the strain in two passengers who had recently returned from South Africa.

It was also picked up in Botswana, where it was sequenced three times, and South Africa – which had only seen one case at the time.

Scientists from all three countries uploaded it to an international database of variants used by experts from around the world, including the UK.

dr. Tom Peacock, a British virologist at Imperial College London who works with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), expressed concern on Tuesday about the species’ 32 “horrific” mutations – twice as many as Delta.

Dr Peacock wrote on social media: ‘Just spotted: very small cluster of variants associated with southern Africa with very long branch length and a really terrible Spike mutation profile.’

Wednesday

MailOnline broke the news about the variant on Wednesday, before No10’s official spokesperson brushed it off as “not seen as something that is a problem,” despite experts fearing the vaccine would be more evasive than Delta.

Some scientists dismissed their fears, saying the species’ large amount of mutations meant it could become unstable — meaning it’s unlikely to become widespread.

But others warned that if it starts to take over the dominant Delta variant in South Africa, it could have ramifications for the rest of the world.

Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said it likely originated in an ongoing infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.

He said it was likely that the variant would be much better able to evade antibodies than Delta.

Professor Balloux told MailOnline: ‘For now it needs to be monitored closely. But you don’t have to worry too much unless it starts to increase in frequency.’

Behind the scenes, MailOnline has understood that there have been “extensive talks” between scientists from the UK government and those in South Africa on Wednesday and Thursday.

Thursday

Cases began to grow exponentially on Thursday in South Africa’s Guateng province, with a particular peak in Johannesburg, where they rose 93 percent in a single day.

The South African government held a press conference on the same day and said it was “concerned about the leap in evolution in this variant.”

British ministers were convened on Thursday for an emergency meeting of the Covid Operations Cabinet Committee, chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Steven Barclay, to discuss how to close Britain’s borders to travelers from Africa.

They were told at the meeting that vaccines would be at least 40 percent less effective against the variant — due to a mutation it shares with the original South African beta variant.

Health Minister Sajid Javid attended the meeting, but Boris Johnson and Housing Minister Michael Gove were not part of the discussions.

It was set up over concerns raised by UK Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and UKHSA chief Dr Jenny Harries.

Passengers on final flights back from South Africa say they experienced no additional restrictions

Passengers entering the UK on one of the last flights from South Africa have revealed that they were not offered any tests and left to mingle with hundreds of others, despite growing concerns about the new variant.

Health Minister Sajid Javid has announced that flights from South Africa – as well as Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe – will be suspended from noon. They have all been red-listed.

But passengers arriving from Johannesburg – the capital of Gauteng province where the variant was first identified – were subjected to ‘no extra precautions’, according to one of the people on the flight – one of three who arrived at Heathrow before the crash. ban takes effect.

Writer and political commentator Adam Schwarz tweeted: ‘This morning a friend arrived in London on one of the last flights from South Africa. Health officials have met with the plane, but no additional precautions are being taken for the hundreds of passengers.

The captain read out a statement of ‘advising’ self-isolation and further tests. But it is at the discretion of the passengers and it is not legally enforceable. Passengers then boarded the airport shuttle to collect their luggage, mixed with dozens of other flights. No test was offered.’

A government source said: ‘Whitty and the experts said we had to act. They wanted it out as soon as possible.”

Insiders stressed that they acted out of “abundant caution.” The issue only came on the radar at No. 10 on Wednesday. “We’ve moved faster than previous decisions,” said a source.

Later, leading British government scientists briefed the media at a hastily organized press conference at 7:45 p.m. last night.

A senior expert from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said: ‘This is the worst variant we’ve seen yet.’

UKHSA experts have advised ministers on the matter, with a number of scientists expressing serious concerns about the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.

A senior scientist said, “One of our biggest concerns is that this peak virus protein is so dramatically different from the viral peak that was in the original Wuhan strain, and thus in our vaccines, that it’s a major concern.”

Sajid Javid released a video on Twitter around 8:50 p.m. Thursday evening announcing that the government is banning all flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

Friday

7 O ‘clock in the morning

Scientists took to the airwaves this morning to warn Britain may have to accept the reintroduction of draconian lockdown restrictions this Christmas as a result of the warning.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Vaccination and Immunization Committee (JCVI), previously raised the prospect of reintroducing lockdown restrictions and warned that people should brace themselves for a ‘change in restrictions’ if the variant spreads to the UK.

dr. Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the UK’s Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), warned it was “possible” the species has already entered Britain.

She said “people are arriving every day” to the UK from Belgium, South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, where the variant has been officially detected.

Belgium’s health ministry said a case was discovered in an unvaccinated young woman who was being tested after experiencing symptoms. She had returned from Egypt 11 days ago.

11 hours

Israel has also discovered a case in a vaccinated person, meaning it has now been confirmed on three continents. The Israeli had returned from Malawi. Two other suspected cases are under investigation.

Passengers flying to the Netherlands from South Africa were not allowed to leave the plane as the continent tightened its borders in an attempt to shut out the tension.

Flights to and from Britain from the six African countries were set to be canceled at noon today, despite No10 scrapping its ‘red list’ of no-fly zones a few weeks ago.

Still, British arrivals from the variant’s epicenter, Johannesburg, had to mingle with hundreds of others as they flew into Heathrow on the last flights out of Africa before the red list was re-imposed in the afternoon. Passengers revealed they had not been tested or questioned about their travel history.

Those coming from the variant epicenter of Johannesburg said they should take “no extra precautions”. Others shared how they circumvented the ban by flying to other countries and then to the UK.

Ursula von der Leyen called on the EU to lift the ’emergency brake’ on travel from southern Africa following the announcement, warning that the species could become world-dominant within months.

The President of the European Commission said: ‘All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a better understanding of the danger posed by this new variant. It is now important that all of us in Europe act very quickly, decisively and unitedly.’

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