What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations - double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will 'almost certainly' make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant's ability to evade vaccines.
Boris Johnson is preparing to implement fresh travel bans on a host of countries in the wake of the new Covid variant, as health chiefs warned against another lockdown at Christmas amid fears Britons would reject tougher curbs.
The travel bans would scupper winter holiday plans for millions of Britons, but Johnson is considering the measures to avoid another Christmas lockdown at home.
Experts however have insisted there is 'no plausible scenario' in which the Covid super-variant Omicron will take the UK back to 'square one', and called for 'calm heads' despite the halting of flights from southern Africa.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said alarmist warnings were simply 'speculation' because the variant had spread only in 'very small numbers'. He also questioned whether the public would accept the return of coronavirus restrictions.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs that, while there was 'huge international concern', vaccines had put Britain in a strong position.
Scientists said existing jabs could be tweaked to tackle the variant. And a World Health Organisation representative said that resorting to 'Plan B' measures so quickly, such as working from home or vaccine passports, would be an over-reaction.
But news of the variant saw the FTSE 100 - the UK’s leading share index - suffer its sharpest drop since January, closing down at 3.7 per cent, spelling alarm for travel companies banking on winter bookings.
Originally known as the 'Botswana' variant, the strain was last night named 'Omicron' by the WHO and officially designated a 'variant of concern'.
Its discovery earlier this week was so significant because it has around 30 mutations, including some linked to an increased risk of transmission. One expert described it as the 'worst' variant so far.
In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel 'red list' – and was poised to add two more last night.
A government adviser suggested that the public should be 'ready for the possibility' of a return to Covid restrictions. But a senior government source told the Mail: 'People should not panic.'
A digital display board shows cancelled flights to London - Heathrow at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. Boris Johnson is preparing to implement fresh travel bans on a host of countries in the wake of the new Covid variant.
Digital display boards show cancelled flights to London - Heathrow at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. Originally known as the 'Botswana' variant, the strain was last night named 'Omicron' by the WHO and officially designated a 'variant of concern'.
Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa at a COVID-19 testing station setup in Amsterdam Airport, November 26 2021 Governments and airlines around the world are scrambling to catch any case of a potentially worse Covid variant Nu which is spreading in several African countries.
In other developments last night:
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian 'Delta' variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport is pictured where the last flight from Johannesburg landed ahead of new Covid-19 restrictions
Addressing a conference yesterday, Professor Whitty said: 'The situation that we've got as a result of vaccines – and particularly in older citizens and people with higher risk conditions because of boosters – is a very different one to what we entered the year with.
'And leaving aside the new variant – which there is speculation about at the moment – the outlook... is actually reasonably manageable.'
Professor Francois Balloux, director of the genetics institute at University College London, advised ministers and the NHS to focus on increasing vaccine uptake before the variant arrived.
'Scientists and politicians should try to keep a cool head and I can see no benefit in the public being alarmed,' he said.
The Government placed South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia on the red list on Thursday night.
The mutant strain, which has also been found in Hong Kong and Israel, has twice as many 'relevant' variations as the Delta variant, which accounts for most infections worldwide.
AstraZeneca jab could be tweaked if it comes to worst
A British vaccine that could provide strong protection against the new super-mutant Covid strain is already in the final trial stages, it was revealed last night.
Test results on the formula, developed by the team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, are due in the next few days. Should it prove effective, it could be ready for use within a matter of weeks.
The news was delivered by immunologist Professor Sir John Bell, a member of the Government's vaccine task force, who also revealed it was too late to stop 'the monster' variant currently ripping through Southern Africa from reaching our shores.
Despite the Government's travel ban, Sir John said it was only 'a matter of time' before it surfaced here.
When that happened, he added, it could be necessary to use modified forms of vaccine if the ones currently being used prove ineffective.
However, the good news was that Britain was already well placed to make the switch quickly thanks to the pioneering work of the award-winning Oxford/AstraZeneca team.
The latest AZ formula was originally created to fight the first South African variant of Covid, which threatened to spread widely last year before being overtaken by the Delta strain. If needed, it could be 'plugged in' to modify the currently-used AZ vaccine with relative ease and be administered through booster shots.
Sir John and his Oxford University colleagues have been closely monitoring the new variant, B11529, which has some 30 mutations, since its surge began a few days ago.
But a more detailed analysis will get under way early next week using samples of the virus flown to Britain from South Africa in secure canisters.
Scientists hope to learn more about it such as its ability to spread and its capacity to cause serious illness.
Though it has already infected many South Africans and appears to transmit with worrying rapidity, the early signs are that it may be less dangerous than other strains, Sir John said.
'The big question is, are people getting really sick? Are the hospitals full? The answer to that is 'No'. Some of my colleagues have called [the new variant] a monster. There's a lot of panic.
'We should just stay calm. We need to behave as if this thing is going to create breakthrough infections. If it doesn't, then fine. If it does, we need to be ready.'
Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, yesterday said early signs suggested it was the 'most worrying' seen so far. But it is likely to be several weeks before researchers have enough information to determine whether the new strain is more transmissible or can evade vaccines.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairman of the South African Medical Association, said doctors were aware only of mild cases of illness caused by the new variant, adding: 'I'm not sure why we are all up in arms.'
Dr Raghib Ali, a senior clinical research associate at the University of Cambridge, suggested panic would not help those with fragile mental health and there was 'no plausible scenario that this variant is going to take us back to square one'.
Dr David Nabarro, a WHO special envoy on Covid-19, said vaccine evasion was a 'reasonable worry'. But speaking to BBC Radio 4's World At One, he added: 'We need to be incredibly careful now to do the right thing but to also recognise that it is going to be some weeks before we can say for certain whether our fears have any basis.'
Wendy Barclay, a professor of virology at Imperial College London, said that – even if the variant evaded antibodies – vaccines would still provide some immunity via T-cells.
Last night the United States said it would restrict entry to travellers from eight southern African countries over concerns about the variant.
The policy does not ban flights or apply to US citizens or permanent residents.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had earlier called for an EU-wide travel ban to southern Africa warning that the Omicron strain could be world-dominant in months.
Passengers flying to the Netherlands from South Africa were banned from getting off the plane as the continent tightened its borders in an attempt to shut out the strain which scientists have described as the 'worst variant ever'. They were eventually let off the runway after being forced to take a test and leave their details with contact tracers.
By contrast, British arrivals from the variant's epicentre Johannesburg were left 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 at noon. Passengers flying into Heathrow revealed they were not tested or questioned about their travel history.
But there was a fresh push to encourage Brits to get jabbed from vaccines minister Maggie Throup in order to help avoid restrictions at Christmas.
She told BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? programme that the WHO recognising it as a variant of concern 'makes it even more serious'.
'At the moment we don't know if it will evade the vaccines that we've all been having and if it will be more infectious than the current variant,' she added.
'When it comes to Christmas my message is that the best way we can have that Christmas this year that we didn't have last year... is to get vaccinated.'
She urged hesitant people to get their first vaccine and others who are eligible to come forward for their boosters.
A flight from South Africa to the Netherlands was barred entry into the country today. Passengers are pictured above waiting in their seats
Pictured above is the cockpit shown on screens on the flight (right), and seats on the plane. The Netherlands suspended entry to flights coming from South Africa at noon today
WHO calls new Covid strain Omicron: UN health chiefs label super-mutant a 'variant of concern' with increased risk of reinfection that could spread more rapidly than Delta
The World Health Organisation has named the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 Omicron and labelled it a 'variant of concern'.
UN health chiefs warned that preliminary evidence suggests the strain has an increased risk of reinfection and could spread more rapidly than the Delta variant.
'Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology... the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named Omicron,' the UN health agency said in a statement.
The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta — meaning it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible that any version before it.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is 'huge international concern' surrounding the strain after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to limit its spread.
He told MPs there are concerns the variant may be more transmissible, make vaccines less effective and may affect one of the UK's Covid treatments, Ronapreve.
Belgium today revealed a case of the Omicron variant, sparking fears of a new Christmas shutdown and prompting EU chiefs to call for an 'emergency brake' on all travel from southern Africa after it was also found in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The Belgian health ministry said a case of the new Omicron strain was confirmed in an unvaccinated young woman who had returned from Egypt 11 days ago, suggesting it is already being seeded across the continent and is widespread in Africa.
Vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn earlier raised the prospect of lockdown curbs being reintroduced, warning that people must be braced for a 'change in restrictions' if the variant spreads to the UK.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK's Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), warned it was 'possible' the strain had already entered Britain. She said people 'are arriving every day' to the UK from countries where the strain had been spotted.
Some 10,000 people are thought to have arrived from South Africa alone in the last two weeks where the most cases of the mutant strain have been found. Mr Javid insisted no cases of the strain have been confirmed in the UK but warned the Government is working quickly but with a 'high degree of uncertainty' and boosters could not be more important now.
Top experts said that if the strain spreads faster and can avoid current jabs it 'will get here'. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the aim of the travel restrictions is to 'slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country'.
The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta — suggesting it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible than any version before it. It has caused an 'exponential' rise in infections in South Africa.
In response, Mr Javid announced last night that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.
Israel was the first country to follow suit, also red-listing the six nations after a first case was detected in the country today. The European Commission has recommended an 'emergency brake' on travel from countries in Southern Africa.
Speaking in the House of Commons this morning, Mr Javid said it 'is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries'.
He said: 'We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health.
'The variant has an unusual large number of mutations. It's the only variant with this designation, making it higher priority than Beta.
'It shares many of the features of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants.
'Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it.
'It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve.'
The Health Secretary added the Government is continuing to assess its travel restrictions with countries with strong links to South Africa and urged the public to book their booster doses as soon as possible.
He said: 'We are continuing to make assessments, including about those countries with strong travel links to South Africa and we're working with our international partners — including South Africa and the European Union — to ensure an aligned response.
'But this variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over.
The above slide shows the proportion of tests that picked up a SGTF mutation, a hallmark of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading rapidly in the country. The slide was presented at a briefing today run by the South African Government
The above slide shows variants that have been detected by province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests B.1.1.529 is focused in Gauteng province. This was presented at a briefing today from the South African Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. It reveals that there is an uptick of cases in the northern part of the province. It is not clear whether this could be driven by B.1.1.529
It came as Britain's daily Covid cases breached 50,000 today for the first time in a month and deaths crept up by 2 per cent in a week - but hospital admissions were down 12 per cent.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, following the detection of the new variant.
Those countries are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi, the White House said on Friday.
'The policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution,' a senior administration official said, after news of the variant caused the Dow futures to fall by 2.25 percent, and both the NASDAQ and S&P Futures Indices to fall by more than 1 percent.
The price of Brent Crude, the market of the global price of oil, fell by six percent.
Why is the Botswana variant so scary? Super strain has evolved to have ALL of the worst mutations of Alpha, Beta and Delta combined plus new ones that could make it the most infectious and jab-resistant variant ever
The Botswana Covid variant, described by experts as the worst strain ever, has all the worrying mutations from previous versions of the virus, plus many more that could make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant one so far.
The super strain has acquired the mutations of Delta, which made that variant so transmissible that it became world-dominant in months.
And the new variant also includes the vaccine-resistant alterations seen on Beta — another strain of concern that emerged in South Africa and was thought to be best at escaping the immune system until now.
It also contains a drop-out mutation that helped the Alpha variant take off in the UK last winter. In total, the new super strain has 32 mutations on its spike protein, more than any variant before it and twice as many as Delta.
It contains two unique alterations on a specific part of the spike which help viruses open the door to human cells.
All warning signs suggest it will become world-dominant in months but scientists have cautioned they have not confirmed any of the effects of the mutations in a laboratory.
South Africa's population has very high levels of natural immunity and seems to be spreading with ease, which UK experts think may allow it to easily infect former Covid patients.
But there is no rise in hospitalisations in the region, which raises hopes it could be a milder Covid iteration.
Here is everything we know about the variant so far:
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
All EU states BAN travel from southern Africa amid panic over case of Covid super-variant
All European Union states have banned travel from southern Africa amid panic over a case of the Covid super-variant Omicron in Belgium.
A committee of health experts from all 27 EU states 'agreed on the need to activate the emergency break and impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern Africa', the Slovenian presidency of the EU said.
Restrictions will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said.
An official said that EU governments have also been asked to discourage travel to those countries.
It comes after Belgium today became the first European country to confirm a case of the super mutant Botswana Covid variant as it spreads to three continents in just a fortnight.
Belgium's health ministry said a case was spotted in an unvaccinated young woman who got tested after suffering symptoms. She had returned from Egypt 11 days ago, suggesting it is already widespread in Africa.
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the 'worst variant they have ever seen' and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body's immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won't know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalisations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are 'rarely seen together' and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body's cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent 'Alpha' variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
Travel industry despair at new uncertainty caused by super-mutant variant as tourism-dependent Cape Town blasts the way South Africa announced it to the world
The travel industry was today wracked with despair at the new uncertainty caused by the super-mutant Botswana variant, with the mayor of tourism-dependent Cape Town slamming the 'rushed' announcement to the world.
Health chiefs in the country hastily called a news conference on Thursday to announce the new B.1.1.529 variant was driving soaring infections - accounting for around 90 percent of all cases in just a matter of weeks.
It has caused a surge in infections, with the 7-day average for daily cases standing at 1,000 on Thursday - a 262 per cent increase on the week before.
Just hours after it was announced, Britain barred all flights from South Africa, and a slew of countries have followed suit, including France, Germany, Italy, Israel and Singapore.
Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis lashed South Africa's Covid experts for sounding the alarm so early, saying that the country's tourism industry had been dealt a 'crushing blow.'
The news comes at a crucial juncture for travel firms around the world as people look ahead to the Christmas holidays - and fears over the new variant have already spooked the market.
Shares in British Airways parent IAG, German carrier Lufthansa and aircraft maker Airbus dropped about 10 per cent on Friday.
Travel expert Paul Charles tweeted: 'The UK Government have again created a pre-Xmas lottery for travellers by saying they will review the red list in three weeks.
'Few will risk their bookings and will now assume they won't be able to travel to the six countries affected during the festive period.'
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African 'Beta' variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Will it affect Christmas in the UK?
Experts said it will be weeks until they know how worrying the new variant is, so it is not yet clear what extra steps might need to be taken in the run up to Christmas.
The only restrictions brought in by the Government so far has been to add six countries to the red list.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said new restrictions cannot be ruled out.
He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: 'On the one hand, I don't want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.'
And when asked what the situation would mean for the UK around the festive period, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Plan B measures — including mandatory face masks and work from home guidance — would be brought in if needed to control infection rates.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a 'variant of concern', the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in five nations: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa where Johannesburg is based.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong and was spotted in someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.
Daily UK Covid cases breach 50,000 for first time in a month after rising 13% in a week and deaths creep up 2% to 160 but hospital admissions fall for 10th day in a row
Britain's daily Covid cases breached 50,000 today for the first time in a month and deaths crept up — as scientists warned the super-mutant Botswana variant could already be in the country.
Department of Health figures show there were 50,091 new cases in the UK in the last 24 hours, up 13 per cent on the previous week.
It marks the first time they had topped 50,000 since October 21 and follows a fortnight of growth, driven mostly by children and young adults.
Some 160 deaths were also registered, which was up two per cent on the same time the previous week when 157 were recorded.
But latest hospitalisations data showed they had fallen 11 per cent after 730 people were admitted to wards with the virus on November 22.
Health chiefs have credited the booster programme with drops in hospitalisations and deaths, which has bolstered the protection of the older age groups who are more vulnerable to the virus. Cases are also falling in the over-60s.
What is the UK doing about the variant?
The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 4am on Sunday must stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
And the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a Variant Under Investigation, which means it has worrying mutations.
Experts will now conduct a risk assessment and may increase its ranking to Variant of Concern if it is confirmed to be more infectious, cause more severe illness or make vaccines and medicines less effective.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was travelling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Since then, 77 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, two in Hong Kong and three in Botswana.
Health chiefs in Israel today announced it had one confirmed and two suspected B.1.1.529 cases, while there are two suspected cases in Belgium.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body's defences.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralising antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: 'The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.'
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalisations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalisations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong, but has not yet been given a name based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization are holding emergency meetings about the variant today, during which it is expected to be named. It could be called the 'Nu' variant.
Backlash over new travel ban: Health chiefs and tourism bosses say it's overreaction to latest strain
There was no warning, I'm furious
A woman who flew to South Africa to attend her nephew's funeral has criticised the Government for not giving British nationals any notice over the travel ban.
Gill Dixon, 52, suffered the bereavement a fortnight ago after visiting her relative in the ICU in the coastal city of George.
But her plans to fly back on Monday evening to return to work have been thrown into turmoil following yesterday's announcement.
Mrs Dixon, pictured right, said: 'I cannot believe the UK Government has pulled something like this on Britons in South Africa.
'I woke up this morning to find out about the news, that they've cancelled all the flights back home.' Mrs Dixon said the treatment of British nationals is nothing short of a disgrace.
'There was no warning from the Government,' she added. 'They should help repatriate British nationals. I'm absolutely furious.'
Even if she can return to her native Kent, the extortionate cost of a quarantine hotel only adds to her anguish. She said: 'There is no reason why I even have to be in quarantine when I come back. I'll have tested negative, and I live on my own. To add to this, they have pushed up the price of quarantine.'
Mrs Dixon added: 'It's time to consider flying to the US or Europe and staying there for ten days before returning to the UK.'
Ministers are poised to add more countries to the travel 'red list' as the threat to foreign winter holidays from the new 'Botswana' Covid variant grows.
Officials were considering whether to add Malawi and Mozambique to the 'no-go' list as soon as this weekend – amid criticism from blacklisted countries, the UN and travel bosses that Britain has overreacted.
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and Lesotho were added on Thursday night over growing fears about the variant. It came as the first European case of the ultra-infectious and potentially vaccine-busting new strain was confirmed in Belgium, leading to concerns of travel restrictions to countries outside Africa.
The Government's move on Thursday night triggered a scramble among the up to 20,000 or so Britons who are in South Africa for leisure travel to return before 4am tomorrow. Anyone arriving back after this will be forced to quarantine in hotels for 11 nights at a cost of £2,285 per adult.
Ministers defended the move yesterday, saying it was a necessary 'safety-first approach' which would 'buy time' by stemming the import and spread of the variant.
But South Africa's foreign minister Naledi Pandor hit out at the move, saying it 'seems to have been rushed'. She added: 'Our immediate concern is the damage this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.'
Officials at the World Health Organisation studying the new strain, officially named yesterday as the Omicron variant, suggested the border curbs were an overreaction.
'At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,' spokesman Christian Lindmeier said during a briefing at the UN agency's headquarters in Geneva. He said it would be several weeks before scientists knew how much less effective vaccines are against the variant.
Travel bosses also reacted with anger. Paul Charles, chief of the PC Agency luxury travel consultancy, said: 'It's a complete overreaction. There's no evidence at the moment that this variant has any impact on the vaccines.
Stephanie Cramer, 55, (pictured) is stranded in Cape Town after flying from London to visit her sick father and celebrate her parents Wedding Anniversary
Gill Dixon, 52, (pictured), who flew to South Africa to attend her nephew's funeral, has criticised the government for not giving British nationals any notice over the travel ban
I'm supposed to start a job on Monday
Stephanie Cramer is stranded in Cape Town by the new variant after flying over to visit her sick father.
She received a text from Virgin late on Thursday telling her that her flight back home to London had been cancelled.
Miss Cramer, 55, pictured, said she was incredibly stressed by the situation as she is starting a new job on Monday.
'There are no flight options,' she said. 'I'm desperate and I've run out of ideas.
'This is beyond a nightmare. I came to see my dad who is ill in hospital and was here for just seven days. Now I have no idea when I will get home.' Miss Cramer, a former enrolment officer for a training company in London, also made the trip to South Africa to celebrate her parents' wedding anniversary.
One of South Africa's biggest airline ticketing agencies, Flight Centre, said no flights would be leaving for the UK or Europe until 4am on Sunday at the very earliest.
Arrivals from this time will have to isolate in expensive quarantine hotels in the UK for two weeks. But Miss Cramer said she cannot afford the cost of the hotel. 'Everywhere I turn it is costing us more money and it is more complicated,' she added.
'It will now hit confidence and lead to lots of people being worried about Christmas holidays in South Africa and possibly elsewhere.'
Figures compiled for the Daily Mail by flight data analysts Cirium show 289 flights with 79,299 seats were scheduled to fly between the UK and South Africa next month.
Direct flights into the UK from the six African countries were banned from midday yesterday.
The red list will be reviewed again in two weeks, but Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned it is likely to be expanded in the coming days to include more countries with travel links to South Africa.
He told MPs the new variant potentially poses a 'substantial risk to public health'. He said it is 'highly likely' the variant 'has now spread to other countries'.
No cases have yet been detected in the UK. Three confirmed cases in Israel were in people who had travelled from Malawi. It has also been detected in Hong Kong.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: 'It is important to act immediately. That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome... so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is. It is a safety-first approach... it's about buying time.'
Boris Johnson spoke yesterday with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. A No 10 spokesman said: 'They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel.'
The two leaders also 'agreed to stay in close contact as we deal with the ongoing threat'.
Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands followed the UK's lead yesterday by restricting travel from South Africa and its neighbouring countries.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union's top eurocrat, urged all the bloc's leaders to do so. The US has also restricted flights from eight African countries.
Do not panic. Jabs have worked on every variant — the world IS winning, writes PROFESSOR BRENDAN WREN
European lockdowns get even STRICTER
Europe is tightening lockdowns even after mass protests and rioting last week as its winter wave of Covid continues to worsen with Germany forced to airlift patients out of overflowing hospitals in the hard-hit south.
Alexander De Croo, Prime Minister of Belgium, warned that infections in his country are now 'worse than the worst-case scenario' as he announced that nightclubs will have to shut their doors while restaurants and bars will be forced to close at 11pm starting on Saturday.
'We have been hoodwinked by the Delta variant,' Mr De Croo said, just hours before a case of the Botswana strain - believed to be even-more infectious than Delta - was confirmed in his country, making it the first in Europe.
The EU Commission has since recommended suspending all travel between Europe and southern African countries where the new variant has been discovered to protect the continent.
Meanwhile the Netherlands is poised to extend a night-time curfew that has been in place since November 12, forcing restaurants and non-essential shops to close between 5pm and 5am each day despite riots
And Germany, which has tightened restrictions on the unvaccinated in recent days, summoned the Luftwaffe to its hard-hit southern regions to airlift patients out.
When an expert from the UK Health Security Agency warns that a new variant of the Covid virus is 'the worst we have seen so far' and another scientist calls it 'horrific', you can forgive people for starting to panic all over again.
And, at first glance, there is certainly good reason to pay attention to B.1.1.529 – the new variant identified in southern Africa.
After all, it has 50 mutations compared to the strain that first emerged in Wuhan two years ago, making it very different from the original virus.
And on the part of the pathogen that infects human cells, it has ten mutations, compared to just two for the Delta variant that swept the world this year.
So, by far the most important questions are: is this variant more transmissible, more virulent and are our vaccines less effective against it?
And on these, we are still largely in the dark. That's why it's prudent for the time being to try to keep the variant out of this country for as long as possible by stopping flights here from affected nations – though we need to be realistic about any ability to do this in the long term.
But here's the key point – viruses mutate all the time. And when they do, they don't always result in more virulent or more worrying strains. Quite the opposite. Over time, pathogens tend to become less deadly because a virus that kills its host quickly spreads less than one that doesn't.
What about vaccines? There have been worried claims that the variant will somehow be 'resistant' to the growing arsenal of jabs – let alone all the other drugs and treatments – that the world's medical community has developed to fight Covid.
Will these claims prove correct? Again, who knows? But even if our vaccines are less effective against B.1.1.529, that certainly does not mean that we are going back to the world of early 2020.
So far our vaccines have worked against all variants of the virus that have evolved. They were developed based on DNA sequenced from the Wuhan strain and they have served us well.
What's more, Britain is the world leader on genome sequencing. Currently, UK laboratories sequence more than 50,000 strains of Covid a week, enabling us to have an early warning system for new variants and stay one step ahead of the virus.
This is how we identified the Alpha (or Kent) variant – it probably arose abroad but our modelling here allowed us to spot it before anyone else.
Above all, the world has a raft of companies developing new vaccine technologies. Scientists can easily modify vaccines to meet new variants – within days if necessary.
If we do in fact need a 'new' vaccine to fight this latest variant, it will be a case of tweaking an existing one.
The vaccine team at Oxford University – and other scientists around the world – are already looking at the genome sequences of all the virus's variants, including B.1.1.529.
In the arms race against the virus, humanity is winning – and we are well-prepared. This is not the last time another variant will emerge. In the meantime, it is vital to remember to stay calm and not overreact.