Europe Shuts Down Travel From Southern Africa Over Fears Of New Virus Mutation That Escapes Immunity

I’ve felt that while the winter is going to be bad from a Covid perspective – rising cases, including breakthrough cases, underboosted population – that we have the tools to end the pandemic. Booster shots restore vaccine protection and Pfizer’s Paxlovid is incredibly effective when taken within 3 days of symptom onset.

While we’ve seen virus variants, we haven’t seen rapid mutation that escapes immunity and also involves greater fitness – so that the virus spreads faster and in vaccinated and previously infected populations. Indeed, vaccines remain protective even though we’re still vaccinating against the original Wuhan strain of the virus and haven’t permitted updated vaccines to be used.

However the Nu variant is concerning.

This new South African variant was discovered on Tuesday, based on samples taken mid-month. It’s been found around the world in travelers originating in South Africa and surrounding countries. The U.K. has shut down flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini. Some other countries in Europe have taken similar steps, along with Israel.

That’s not going to stop it if it is indeed a more fit variant of the virus. It’ll spread beyond the countries where it is currently most prevalent and from there it will sneak into the countries blocking flights. Only island nations in true lockdown can block it, as we learned throughout the pandemic. And as the virus continues to spread wildly travel restrictions don’t stop the spread of mutation because the virus continues to mutate within countries where it’s already spreading.

This variant has multiple spike protein mutations that could help it become more transmissible and also evade immunity. Whether this variant becomes dominant or not, it’s suggestive that there are more mutations in the virus that are possible – countering prevailing wisdom that significant mutation wouldn’t be possible while continuing to infect humans. Indeed, this variant even evades identification in current testing – PCR tests amplify three virus genomes but these tests can amplify just two of the genomes with this variants. So when we talk about having identified fewer than 100 cases that’s because we weren’t really looking for it. But when researchers went looking for cases that had only genomes amplified that corresponded with case spikes.

Regeneron monoclonal antibodies are likely less effective against the Nu strain, though it appears that AstraZeneca’s cocktail will fare better. Meanwhile Pfizer’s Paxlovid was so effective its phase 3 trial was cut short, because it was deemed unethical to give anyone a placebo when they could have the real thing. Yet the FDA hasn’t indicated when anyone will be permitted to have it, since they haven’t yet deemed it safe and effective. It seems like we may need it…

Update: WHO has named this variant “Omicron” rather than Nu in the Greek alphabet which was next. That also means they’ve skipped over Greek letter Xi. Heh.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. More utterly irresponsible COVID “reporting” from noted epidemiologist and public health expert Gary Leff.

    Folks: we know very little about the Nu / B.1.1.529 variant. Yes it has a notable number of mutations. Yes, it’s spreading in South Africa. But South Africa is also only like 25% vaccinated; and was at the lowest level of spread since the start of the pandemic (i.e not much Delta to displace). So expanding cases…only means expanding cases. We simply don’t know how this variant will impact things…or if it won’t.

    Push pause on the panic button until we get some more actual info.

  2. Thank you, Bob.

    Alarmist info again all over the media. The stock market is way down–and I am buying on the dip.

    We have the tools and technology to adjust the mRNA vaccines to counter serious strain mutations, and ‘we’ are in a much better, prepared state now to rise to the occasion and meet further challenges. No, I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m just a reader with some common sense. Maybe this news will hasten the anti-vaxxers into being jabbed?

    Such reactionary news does nobody a favor (well, I take that back–investors can do very well, thank you!)

  3. Viruses mutate to survive. Killing possible hosts doesn’t achieve this goal. Thus, a mutated virus may be more infectious/transmissible but less serious. More like a bad cold than potentially fatal pneumonia. So, yes, hold the panic button until we have more verifiable info.

  4. Never introduce a vaccine in the middle of a pandemic!!!!! Now look what all of you super vaxers have caused! But we need more boosters!!

    Plus, due to the vaccine mandates which it seems many of you here and throughout the world love so much, we have hospitals across the country in bad shape…

    “18 children were injured, some critically, in the recent Christmas parade attack in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s largest Children’s hospital is having a difficult time caring for these children due to medical staff shortages caused by a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and their refusal to honor most religious exemption requests.”

    “Nursing shortage forces Syracuse’s biggest hospital system to shut down 20% of patient beds”
    “Minnesota hospitals get federal help to address staff shortages”
    “ED service to remain closed at Catholic Health Orchard Park (NY) center amid staffing shortages”
    “Mount Sinai South Nassau-operated Long Beach Emergency Department forced to close Monday afternoon due to nursing staff shortages occurring as a result of the state vaccine mandate, according to the hospital.”

    Good job people. Good job!

    I won’t even bother tearing apart Gary’s nonsense medical reporting here….. I don’t have the time or desire. I don’t care anymore. I already had CV, Ivermectin took care of it in a couple of days and my Innate and Natural immunity is fully intact, unlike most of you who are wiped out!

    But I do love buying the dips caused by the alarmists and will get out just before “they” crash the markets 80% and suck your retirement accounts dry before you even have a chance. Most of you have no idea what is coming. It will get a lot worse before this is over. You haven’t seen anything yet.

    Lets lock down the US again!

  5. OH NO!!! Whatever shall we do?!?!
    QUICK! Somebody call King Brandon, Saint Fauci (patron of bs) and Heels Up Harris to valiantly lead us from this sure destruction!!

  6. Todd, the use of the vaccines does NOT promote or induce these variants. The Delta variant arose in India where only 2% of the population was vaccinated at the time. This variant in South Africa with only 23% f th population vaccinated. O knock off the disinformation.

  7. The virus mutates in human hosts when it makes mistakes replicating itself. The fewer people are vaccinated, the more hosts, the greater chance for mutations.

  8. The foil hat posse is well represented today. With them so busy commenting here, who’s left to be the QAnon moderator?

  9. If this variant has the potential to evade the vaccine then maybe the US should shutdown flights from there. Why the hell would we wait and see as planeloads of people from there come here? This isn’t even the first time south africa has produced a variant. There is a big difference between a handful of people managing to get around restrictions and entering the US vs openly allowing planeloads of people to fly in constantly which substantially increases the risk of this variant coming to the US. Travel bans do work if you don’t screw around and debate them. At the very least require mandatory quarantine for anyone coming from there until we know what we are dealing with. The US needs to be proactive not reactive. The US is too slow to react every singe time a decision needs to be made during this pandemic and it keeps costing us lives.

  10. Travel restrictions in the US start Monday, per The Guardian. Unclear what those restrictions are yet.

  11. @CHRIS
    So you seriously think we should call the great scientist Chump. He’s the stupid A-hole that didn’t get it done.

  12. @Rog
    Good thing Orange Man Bad was in charge of China (CHY-na), India and ALL of Europe too. They all “got it done” too.

  13. Gary – you should hire some good data forensics people to check the sources of some of these comments. I realize there are plenty of domestic science-deniers, vaccine-deniers, election integrity-deniers, and fans of autocratic democracy-destroying pathological lying dangerous narcissistic psychopath politicians, but my first thought on reading these comments is that they could be Russian, Chinese, etc. “State” actors spreading confusion via disinformation and hate speech. These activities are not limited to the big social networks (FB, Twitter, etc) at all. Even smaller entities are targeted, like your excellent travel blog. The bad actors know the smaller fish don’t have the time and resources to pursue it.

  14. Yes Gary,
    Please spend thousands of dollars of your own money to hire a full team of forensic data investigators so that someone who probably hasn’t had a job in the last 20 months will be less butthurt about coming to your blog and reading the comments. Should I call Robert Mueller now or give it a week? Or, maybe Brandon can appoint Heels Up Harris to identify the “root causes” of your comment section.

  15. Brought to you by Brandon and his useless Gang of BSers..—
    Make it stop !
    What’s next ? So fed up ….

  16. @Robert A Sepersky

    I will bet on my research from real scientists, who are actually Pro vax vs ANY statement from Robert A Sepersky! You simply are a parrot for the official narrative and are incapable of going beyond your programming. Good luck!

  17. @infosec (love the techy name; you must be one rad dude)

    Who are the folx who actually support authoritarian policies in the vein of the CCP? Person with a cervix Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC.

    “[S]cience-deniers, vaccine-deniers, election integrity-deniers, and fans of autocratic democracy-destroying pathological lying dangerous narcissistic psychopath politicians.” You mean Democrats, right? The science says masks mandates don’t work. If you think vaccines work, you shouldn’t be deathly afraid of the unvaccinated. Crying about the unvaccinated means you are a crypto-anti-vaxxer. Stacey Abrams still thinks she really is the rightful governor of Georgia. Republicans want people to be free to live their lives. Dear Uncle Joe wants to force folx to get injected with experimental therapies (and we can’t sue the makers if something goes wrong). What happened to my body, my choice?

  18. I admit it is so hard to determine whether the information that you are receiving is trueful or not, and if you are going to have enough time to do something to help your family or not. I definitely want to be kept abreast of what is going on with Covid-19.

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