Beta variant: What is the new strain of Covid and is it more dangerous?

The B.1.351 strain has been deemed a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation

Lamiat Sabin
Saturday 17 July 2021 17:38
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Former WHO adviser Professor Paul Hunter says Beta variant not the problem in France

The Beta variant of Covid-19 was first identified in South Africa last year, and has since been found in more than 120 countries.

Its perceived danger to the UK has now led the government to decide that travel rules for people arriving from France are to stay in place.

From 19 July, which has been dubbed “freedom day”, double-jabbed adults arriving in England and Wales from “amber list” countries will not need to isolate for 10 days and have tests during quarantine.

But it was announced on Friday that the rule change will not apply to travellers from France.

France has now been put into a new “amber plus” category due to, what the UK government described as, the “persistent” cases of the Beta variant in that country.

The government has been criticised for enforcing “confusing” rules that are based on data that suggests travellers from mainland France pose no more threat than other countries of spreading Beta-strain cases in the UK.

Why is the variant a concern for the UK government?

The strain, which is also known as B.1.351, has been deemed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation.

Like the Alpha, Gamma and Delta strains, it has been found to be more contagious, more virulent, and more resistant to vaccines than the original Covid-19 virus.

The UK government is concerned that more cases could be spread in the UK by travellers arriving from France.

The Beta variant poses a “threat” to the UK, with evidence suggesting the strain may evade the effect of vaccines, warned Professor John Edmunds, a scientist involved in advising the government, on Saturday.

He told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: “The Beta variant has remained a threat throughout.

“It is probably less infectious than the Delta variant that is spreading here in the UK at the moment. Where it has an advantage is that it is able to escape the immune response to a better extent.”

How widespread is the Beta variant in France?

French MEP and medical doctor, Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, told BBC Today that the variant is only a concern on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

“It is not present in France, in mainland France, at all,” she said.

And French news website The Local reported that the Beta variant “only represents a small number of cases in France”.

The Beta variant is responsible for all of the Covid-19 cases in La Réunion, reports English-language French news website The Connexion – citing France’s public health data.

Circulation of the variant remains low in metropolitan France, France’s national health agency reported on 8 July, and the percentage of Beta cases has been reducing in recent weeks, according to the French government’s app Tous Anti Covid.

Some 3.4 per cent of cases recorded in France were found to be the Beta variant, in the four-week period to 1 July, according to global open source database GISAID.

There have been 88 new cases of the Beta variant in France in those four weeks bringing its total to 2,135, its data shows.

The UK recorded four new cases during that time, increasing its total to 812. Germany is reported to have had 2,197 cases of the variant.

How has the UK government’s rule been received?

Aviation analyst Alex Macheras accused the government on BBC Newsnight on Friday of having “simply continued to make up the rules as they go along”.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “Ministers are making up rules on the hoof and causing chaos.”

Georgina Thomas, a fully vaccinated nurse who has been visiting her parents in France, told PA news agency: “I’m frustrated with the inconsistent approach the government are taking, it doesn’t all appear logical.

“If a quarantine is necessary then so be it, but I’m confident that my risk will be higher when I return to the UK.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps defended the government’s approach and said it was committed to safely reopening international travel but that public health was the priority.

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