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‘Really concerning’ Beta variant has spread from South Africa to 132 countries

The Beta coronavirus variant that led to further restrictions against travelling from France
Experts fear the strain is more resistant to vaccines (Picture: Reuters/Getty)

The ‘really concerning’ Beta variant that first emerged in South Africa has now spread to over 130 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The strain, which experts fear is more resistant to vaccines, was why England placed France on a special amber-plus list that required travellers to quarantine for up to 10 days on return.

That decision was reversed last night, despite Education minister Gillian Keegan admitting a day earlier that the government was particularly worried about the variant.

‘When we say we’re concerned about the rise of new variants, the one we’re really concerned about at the moment is the Beta variant – we’ve been looking at that one and that’s why [France was] put on a special list,’ she told ITV news.

WHO said that globally, 132 countries have reported cases of the Beta variant.

The most widespread strain is the Alpha one, which is present in 182 countries. This variant first emerged in Kent last year and forced the UK into a third national lockdown.

A traveler passes a sign for a Covid-19 testing centre at London Heathrow Airport
The government has relaxed travel rules despite the prevalence of variants of concern around the world (Picture: Getty Images)

However it is no longer the most dominant strain in the country, with cases of the Delta variant that first emerged in India far more widespread.

In an epidemiological report published on Tuesday, WHO said 135 countries had reported cases of the Delta variant, while 81 countries have reported cases of the Gamma variant which first emerged in Brazil.

Though there are thousands of different types of strains, Beta, Alpha, Delta and Gamma are considered variants of concern by the UK government due to being more infectious.

But the Beta variant is particularly concerning to the UK due to evidence it can escape the immune response better than others and that vaccines might therefore be less effective against it. 

When France was placed on the amber-plus list, Sage’s Professor John Edmunds told BBC Radio 4’s 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.’

He added: ‘As the population here becomes more and more immune, the conditions are right then for the Beta variant to get an advantage, so I can understand the concern.

‘Of the variants that are out there and are known about, that one has always been a threat to us. 

‘There is some good evidence from South Africa that it can evade the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine more efficiently.’

People arriving in England from France will only be able to avoid quarantine if they are double-jabbed, which is in line with other countries on the amber list.

Yesterday’s rule change was one of several to the traffic-light system measuring countries by risk for international travel.

Germany and six other countries were placed on the green list, while India and the UAE were moved from the red list to the amber list.

Spain – where it is thought up to a million Britons are currently on holiday – is staying on the amber list, despite worries that it could have been added to red due to the Beta variant.

However, travellers arriving back from the holiday hotspot are being urged to take a PCR test before flying home ‘as a precaution against the increased prevalence of the virus and variants in the country’.

Defending the move, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the vaccine rollout meant more travel restrictions could be eased.

He said: ‘We are committed to opening up international travel safely, taking advantage of the gains we’ve made through our successful vaccination programme, helping connect families, friends and businesses around the world.’

He added that double vaccination for travel is likely to stay ‘forever more’ and that he expects most countries to eventually require it as a condition of entry.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

For more stories like this, check our news page.

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