A potential new Covid-19 variant first detected in Nepal may have spread among mountain climbers taking on Mount Everest.
There is growing concern over the new variant, which could feature mutations that make it more transmissible and possibly more resistant to vaccines.
Cases in Nepal have skyrocketed as India’s devastating second wave of infections spills into neighbouring countries.
The British government is monitoring infections involving a new variant of the disease which is similar to the Delta – formally Indian – variant but may feature further changes.
Public Health England (PHE) is investigating 20 UK cases of the Nepal variant and cases have also been identified in Japan, India and Portugal.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is yet to formally confirm the variant’s existence but Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said this morning that there is ‘growing evidence’ that it exists.
Nepal’s borders are open to climbers heading for Everest and crowded base camps full of international tourists could be a source of concern.
According to the UK Foreign Office, anyone can travel to the country if they present a negative test taken three days before their trip.
A previous confirmed outbreak at an Everest base camp in May led to at least 100 cases.
Health experts are torn on the nature and threat posed by the strain but agree the climbing tourism industry is a concern.
Dr Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, told the Daily Mail that he could not confirm the strain exists but said it was possible climbing sites could be a transmission risk.
He said: ‘I would worry about all the crowded tents that people traveled through on the way up there.
‘It’s plausible that places like that could be the transmission site.’
Dr Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said: ‘The virus mutates when people come close together.
‘No one climbs unless they are healthy and have good lungs so they’re healthy, strong, will get infect asymptomatically and spread it.’
Dr Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, said 13 samples were found among passengers heading from Nepal to Japan, fuelling fears over climbing tourists picking up the disease.
Explaining why Portugal was removed from the green travel list, Mr Jenrick said ‘although both countries have prevalence of the Indian variant or Delta variant as it’s called, we’re also seeing in Portugal now growing evidence of a further mutation being called the Nepal variant’.
While the UK government is increasingly concerned about this new variant, it hasn’t been formally designated yet.
The WHO, which coordinates international efforts to categorise and name new strains, has not labelled it a variant of concern like the Delta (formerly Indian) variant.
Experts at the WHO are also yet to designate it as a variant of interest, a lower tier category for strains which are on scientists’ radars but not yet designated as a major issue.
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