Scientists said they were concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organization as Omicron, because it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount found in the Delta variant. Mutations contain features seen in all other variants, but also features that have never been seen before.
British scientists first learned of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website in South Africa, Hong Kong, and then Botswana.
On Friday it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium, but there are currently no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing was underway in the UK to determine if any cases had already been imported.
Work is also underway to see if the new variant can cause a new infection in people who have already had a coronavirus or a vaccine, or if the decline in immunity may play a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, said the new variant will “almost certainly” make vaccines less effective, although they will still offer protection.
Pfizer / BioNTech, which produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the ability of the new variant to evade vaccines.