Portugal put on amber list over 'Nepal variant' despite WHO being 'unaware' of strain

3 June 2021, 19:13 | Updated: 9 June 2021, 05:46

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Portugal has been removed from the UK's green travel list due to government concerns over a Nepal mutation, despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) being "unaware" of the strain.

The Iberian nation being placed on the amber list came as a huge blow for tourists who had booked holidays and the travel industry that has once again been left in limbo.

Earlier on Thursday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the change, citing concern over a so-called Nepal coronavirus mutation.

Justifying the decision, he said the government had seen "two things really which caused concern".

"One is the positivity rate has nearly doubled since the last review in Portugal," he explained.

Read more: Portugal moved to amber travel list forcing tourists to quarantine on return

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Portugal was removed from the green list despite little evidence of a Nepal variant
Portugal was removed from the green list despite little evidence of a Nepal variant. Picture: PA

"The other is, there's a sort of Nepal mutation of the so-called Indian variant which has been detected and we just don't know the potential for that to be vaccine-defeating mutation, so we simply don't want to take the risk as we come up to 21 June and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock."

However, earlier in the day, amid speculation that Portugal would be removed from the UK's travel green list, the WHO posted on Twitter that it is unaware of a variant that had originated in Nepal.

"WHO is not aware of any new variant of SARS-CoV-2 being detected in Nepal," it said.

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"The 3 confirmed variants in circulation are: Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2) and Kappa (B.1.617.1). The predominant variant currently in circulation in Nepal is Delta (B.1.617.2)."

One of the three mutations referred to is linked to Kent, while the latter two are linked to India, with all given their Greek alphabet names.

Elsewhere, one virus expert told The Independent that despite a week of talk about a possible new strain originating in Nepal, there has been no evidence to support the rumours.

Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London, who is also a member of the government’s Nervtag group, told the paper he has not yet seen proof of a new Nepalese variant.

"Inevitably the virus is going to continue to evolve and in remote parts of the world where we have little access to samples or data it will be difficult to get information in the early stages of a variant evolving," he said.

"This really just emphasises how vital it is to get vaccines rolled out as soon as possible and as widely around the world as we can."

One unnamed Sage member also told the Daily Mail the government should not be too concerned over new strains.

"There are thousands of variants. This is a virus that is changing all the time," he said.

The paper also reported that the alleged Nepal mutation had already landed in Europe.

Nepal is currently seeing a surge in infections, with the Himalayan nation sandwiched between China and India, which has been battling a deadly second wave.

Meanwhile, epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani told LBC she feels "intensely frustrated" with government rules on travel which "are not evidence-based at all".

"The government's policy on borders is all wrong," she said.