UK health officials announce 2nd new COVID-19 strain

Britain's Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, speaks at a press conference inside 10 Downing Street on further restrictions to be put in place due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on December 23, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth

Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock alerted the United Kingdom of another new strain of COVID-19 circulating in the country after scientists announced the discovery of a second, "more transmissible" mutation of the novel coronavirus. 

"We’ve detected two cases of another new variant of the coronavirus here in the U.K.," Hancock said during a news conference Wednesday. "Both are contacts of cases who have traveled from South Africa over the past few weeks."

Hancock said the country’s top scientists recently met with their South African colleagues in regard to the latest discovery.

"This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further," Hancock said.

Hancock explained the country is now largely quarantining and monitoring cases throughout the U.K. The government also imposed travel restrictions from South Africa. 

Hancock urged any citizen who traveled to South Africa or who has been in contact with someone who traveled to South Africa in the past two weeks to quarantine immediately. 

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The measures are temporary until scientists can better understand the latest strain, Hancock said.

Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.

Before the latest discovery, the U.S. CDC acknowledged the U.K. government’s discovery of the previous new strain, saying "this variant strain has been predicted to potentially be more rapidly transmissible than other circulating strains." 

"When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the U.K. — there are also mutations that we’re seeing in South Africa — and given the travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it is already here," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, told PBS.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed Fauci’s concern.

"Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation," the CDC said in a statement. "Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected."

Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas where Hancock said the first new strain is "out of control." Experts expressed confidence that the vaccines now being given would be effective against it.

Still, the U.K. and other countries announced travel restrictions in a bid to slow the transmission of the new coronavirus strains. 

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New York City will send sheriff’s deputies to the homes or hotel rooms of all travelers coming from the United Kingdom to ensure they comply with the city’s two-week COVID-19 quarantine requirement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

All travelers to New York, regardless of where they’re arriving from, are required to fill out forms with contact information and where they’ll be staying. They will then be sent a quarantine order by certified mail, de Blasio said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday he would issue a proclamation requiring passengers who arrive from the United Kingdom and South Africa to quarantine for 14 days, including passengers who have arrived from those countries in the past few days. It also encourages those people to get tested for the virus.

Some European countries have already limited travel from the U.K. From Canada to India, one nation after another banned flights from Britain, while France barred the entry of trucks from Britain for 48 hours while the strain is assessed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The story was reported from Los Angeles.