A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past a mural promoting awareness of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Jakarta
The B.1.1.7 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom in September 2020 and has since spread to at least 50 other countries Reuters

In recent weeks, concerns have been growing about a new, more infectious strain of COVID-19 that has been detected in several countries. This strain, known as B.1.1.7 or the "UK variant," has raised the alarm among public health officials who fear it could lead to a surge in cases and overwhelm healthcare systems worldwide.

The B.1.1.7 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom in September 2020 and has since spread to at least 50 other countries. It is believed to be more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19, with estimates suggesting it could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, reports of estimated positive Covid cases in the UK have reached their highest level since January 3 at the end of March. However, while the virus seems to be spreading more easily, there is no definitive evidence to show that being affected by it leads to more severe illness.

Experts say the new variant has several mutations in the spike protein of the virus, which makes it more efficient at infecting human cells. This means that it can spread more easily from person to person, even in situations where people are taking precautions such as wearing masks and practising social distancing.

In the UK, where the B.1.1.7 variant is now the dominant strain of the virus, cases have surged in recent weeks, leading to a new national lockdown. Other countries, including France, Germany, and Italy, have also seen a sharp rise in cases linked to the new variant.

Health officials around the world are now racing to contain the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant by ramping up testing, tracing, and vaccination efforts. Many countries have also imposed travel restrictions on travellers from the UK and other countries where the variant has been detected.

Despite these efforts, experts warn that the B.1.1.7 variant will likely continue spreading and may become the dominant strain of the virus globally. This could have serious implications for the ongoing pandemic and the efforts to bring it under control.

As such, officials are urging the public to remain vigilant and continue to follow public health guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands regularly, and practising social distancing. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has also revived its Check-in and Chart service for vulnerable, isolated, or lonely patients.

Officials have also stressed the importance of getting vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available to them, as this will help protect against all strains of the virus, including the new, more infectious B.1.1.7 variant.

Ms Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease epidemiologist, said at a news conference: "One of the variants that we are looking at, and I think you specifically mentioned India, is a variant that we have under monitoring. This is the XBB.1.16. It's actually very similar in profile to XBB.1.5. It has one additional mutation in the spike protein which in lab studies shows increased infectivity, as well as potential increased pathogenicity. So, it's one that we are monitoring (...) because it has potential changes that we need to keep a good eye out on."

She continued: "At the present time, there are only about 800 sequences of XBB.1.16 from 22 countries. Most of the sequences are from India and in India XBB.1.16 has replaced the other variants that are in circulation. So, this is one to watch. It has been in circulation for a few months. So far reports do not indicate a rise in hospitalisations, ICU admissions, or deaths due to XBB.1.16."

The World Health Organization's weekly Covid update states: "There are currently no reported laboratory studies on markers of disease severity for XBB.1.16."