The new variant is worrying – but it doesn’t change how we tackle Covid | Kit Yates

A new variant of Covid-19 has been described as "horrific" and "the worst ever" by many of the world's leading Covid-19 experts. Authorities are concerned. It is important to place their concerns in context. We have detected variant before but never taken off. It was only last week that the variant was on everyone's radar. The new variant is still unknown. The fact that we have detected this new variant early is good news and shows that the global system is working. The high number of mutations detected in its genome are concerning. Scientists around the world warn that it must be taken seriously.

The opportunity to change is given to a virus every time it replicates. Simple mathematics shows that the more opportunities the virus has to replicate, the larger the number of mutations and the higher the chances of new variant emerging. The majority of the time, the resulting virus will have a neutral or negative impact. Occasionally we will see a change in the nature of the virus.

Does it spread faster are the three things that determine how worried we should be about an emerging variant. Is it more dangerous? Is it evading our immunity? The new variant, B.1.1.529, was first detected in southern Africa. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it could be a serious threat and we will need to do everything we can to limit its spread.

This variant seems to be growing faster than Delta, which rose to global dominance earlier this year. This assessment is based on a small number of cases in South Africa, and there is still a lot of uncertainty over how transmissible it is. The B. 1.1.529 has acquired some of the same genes that were associated with higher transmissibility in other versions. Scientists are concerned about its ability to spread.

The small number of genomes that have been found in this new variant is a bigger concern than the case data. Some of the B. 1.1.529 mutations have been associated with changes to the spike protein that might make it different to the version of Covid we were designed to target.

The most worrying aspect is the potential for immune evasion. It is why nations are trying to stop the variant from arriving. Israel was one of the first countries to limit travel from southern Africa. Israel has already taken precautions to prevent community spread of the variant, quarking two other travellers who are suspected to have been exposed. Belgium confirmed the first case of the new variant in Europe.

It is possible that the variant is already here in the UK. No cases have been found so far. The government has placed several countries on England's red travel list. The managed hotel quark will not be in effect until Sunday, and arrivals are asked to go home between now and then. There are still concerns about the variant being imported from countries that aren't on the red list, even though managed isolation from listed countries is in place.

There is a chance that the new variant could be spread through people travelling via a third country in order to circumvent the measures. The loopholes need to be closed quickly. If the variant starts spreading among people in the country, we will need enhanced contact testing and tracing, including testing of those who have come into contact with someone who is Covid-positive before or after their infection was detected. This would help to stop any potential outbreaks. If the variant is found to be spreading in the community, surge testing should be on stand-by.

The UK should be tackling Covid the same way as before. People should still get the vaccine and their booster shots. People spend more time indoors in the winter, so we need to improve the air quality in communal spaces. The high rates of Covid seen by children in schools should be mitigated. Updating our messaging on Covid symptoms and getting in touch with close contacts of people who have been exposed should be our top priority. Businesses should be encouraging people to work from home if they can, and masks should be made compulsory in public spaces.

We must be doing everything we can to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The emergence of this new and potentially dangerous variant highlights that the UK is not immune to Covid in other countries. It makes no sense for the UK government to talk about being the first to get out of the epidemic. By its very definition, the Pandemic is a global problem that will only be solved with global solutions.

Worldwide vaccinations will be important in order to reduce Covid cases around the world and limit the potential for novel variant that could undermine all our hard work. Rich nations have not done enough to achieve this goal. The new variant reinforces the message that should have always been the main thrust of the response: nowhere is safe until everyone is safe.

Kit Yates is the director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath.