Countries across the world rushed to impose travel bans on South Africa on Christmas Eve as details emerged of a new highly transmissible variant of Covid-19 that was wreaking havoc in parts of the country.
The UK suffered a similar fate the previous week when it also released information about a fast-spreading version of Covid-19 that led to Christmas being effectively cancelled for millions of people around the country.
The variants are not related but share similar characteristics: they are highly transmissible, lead to higher viral loads and appear to spread more easily in younger people. However, neither are thought to lead to more severe disease or higher death rates.
But Dr Tulio de Oliveira, an academic at KwaZulu Natal University and the man who led the work to identify the South African variant, was clearly unimpressed with other countries’ reactions to the open sharing of data.
“Unfortunately, it seems that the UK and South Africa are being sanctioned because they were transparent about the results of their genomic surveillance,” he said.
The New York Times dubbed the UK ‘Plague Island’ after details of the new variant emerged but most experts believe that this moniker is unfair, as the reason we found the variant is we were looking for it.
Prof Sharon Peacock, head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (Cog-UK), said the UK’s high level of genomic surveillance meant “if you’re going to find something anywhere, you’re going to find it probably here first”.
And according to the World Health Organization the variant has been detected in several countries including Australia, Denmark, Italy, Iceland and the Netherlands.
The UK has been undertaking genetic sequencing of viruses in real time since the beginning of the pandemic so was able to detect it early on, says Dr Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Reading.
“In other countries that do not have this capacity, it is quite possible that these variants are already in circulation, but currently unidentified,” he said.
The UK is not alone in conducting genomic sequencing but few countries do it at the same rate.
Scientists in the UK have performed 157,000 sequences out of just over two million cases. The United States, by contrast, has performed around 55,000 sequences out of 17 million infections.
The UK has been a world leader in genetic research for some years and Cog-UK was set up in the early days of the pandemic, harnessing the research capabilities of 16 universities around the country.
Compared to other viruses, coronaviruses are fairly stable, meaning they do not mutate as much as others and some questioned whether such a large-scale sequencing capacity was necessary, said Prof Peacock.
“Only with a dataset on this scale is it possible to get the high resolution needed to make genome surveillance useful for investigating individual outbreaks,” she wrote on the Cog-UK website.
As well as helping to work out how viruses spread in settings such as workplaces and hospitals, the sequencing also means researchers are able to map mutations that could change the disease severity or evade treatments and vaccines.
This latest variant does not appear to be in this camp but knowing it is there is vital. The developers behind the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine believe their jab will still be effective, and say if it is not they will be able to develop another one within six weeks.
While South Africa may not have the same genetic capacity as the UK (it has sequenced nearly 3,000 viruses out of 950,000 cases in the country) it was also quick to identify its new variant, two cases of which have already been detected in the UK.
When details of the UK variant emerged Dr Mike Ryan, director of emergencies at the World Health Organization, described the rapid sharing of the information as the “height of transparency”.
However, the dilemma over whether to fess up or not is common to all disease outbreaks as countries fear punitive measures that could damage their economies.
The UK and South African economies are already pretty wrecked and travel bans may be useless in any case when these new variants are probably already halfway around the world.
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