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People walk at Oxford Street, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease pandemic, in London, Britain, Dec. 23, 2020.

HANNAH MCKAY/Reuters

The British government is putting much of England into a near-total lockdown as of Boxing Day after health officials detected another new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, one believed to have emanated from South Africa.

Britain has already been coping with a variant first uncovered this month in Kent, southeast of London. Scientists say they believe it is as much as 70 per cent more transmissible and has spread across much of the United Kingdom.

On Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said two cases of a variant similar to one found in South Africa have also surfaced in the U.K. “This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the U.K.,” he said during a news conference.

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Health officials fear the variants could be behind a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.K. The number of daily infections has increased 57 per cent in the past week and reached a record 39,237 Wednesday. Hospital admissions have been climbing by 1,900 a day, and the daily number of deaths reached 744 Wednesday – both the most since April.

As a result, Mr. Hancock said lockdown measures will be expanded to almost half of England as of Dec. 26. London and parts of southern England have been in lockdown since Sunday. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also announced tougher controls on social movements.

“Against this backdrop of rising infections, rising hospitalizations and rising numbers of people dying from coronavirus, it is absolutely vital that we act,” Mr. Hancock said. He didn’t say how long the restrictive measures would last and ruled out a nationwide lockdown, at least for now.

Both cases of the South African variant involved people who had recently travelled to that country. They have been placed in quarantine, and Mr. Hancock said anyone who has been to South Africa in the past two weeks must self-isolate. Britain is also restricting travel from South Africa.

British scientists say the variant found in Kent has been circulating in parts of southern England since late September and quickly moved into London and other regions. South African scientists said the new variant there was detected recently in the coastal city of Nelson Mandela Bay and seems to have spread across the provinces of Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

While the variants are not identical, they both involve genetic changes to the virus’s spike protein, which could make it easier for the virus to attach to human cells and infiltrate them, said Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School.

However, Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said it wasn’t clear that the South African variant was more contagious than the Kent variant. “The mutation that has cropped up in Africa has been seen before, and we have no idea whether it impacts on virus transmissibility or immunity,” he said. “We need to study the impact of mutations on virus behaviour, but until we have performed those important experiments, we should avoid panicking.”

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Researchers say they don’t believe either variant is more harmful or more resistant to vaccines. However, there are indications that children could be more susceptible to the variants.

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at London’s Imperial College who also sits on a government scientific advisory committee, said studies have shown that a statistically significant proportion of cases of the Kent variant involved children under 15. In South Africa, the Public Health Ministry said officials have noticed an increase in “critical illness” among younger patients who have no other medical conditions.

Scientists have long warned that the virus would mutate repeatedly, and at least 4,000 variants have been found. Britain and South Africa have been world leaders in sequencing the virus’s genome to keep track of the genetic changes.

“The importance of real-time genomic surveillance to understanding patterns of disease is evident,” said Andrew Preston, a researcher in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath. “In other countries that do not have this capacity, it is quite possible that these variants are already in circulation but currently unidentified. It appears we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of this pandemic, making the effective rollout of the vaccines even more time-critical.”

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