South African scientists said on Thursday they had detected a new variant of COVID-19 with multiple mutations, blaming it for an increase in the number of infections, while the country’s health minister considered the variant “a major threat “.
“Unfortunately, we have detected a new variant which is a cause for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira said at a hastily called press conference.
He said the variant, which carries the scientific line number B.1.1.529, “has a very high number of mutations.” “This unfortunately causes an upsurge in infections,” he said.
So far, the variant has been seen to spread, especially among young people.
It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, he said.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was “of serious concern” and caused an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.
Daily infections reached over 1,200 on Wednesday, up from around 100 earlier this month.
Before the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted that a fourth wave would hit South Africa from mid-December, carried by travel before the holiday season.
The government-run National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the B.1.1.529 variant have been recorded in the country as a result of genomic sequencing.
He said in a statement Thursday that detected cases and the percentage of positive tests “are increasing rapidly” in three of the country’s provinces, including Gauteng, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
A cluster outbreak was recently identified, concentrated in a higher education institute in the capital Pretoria, the NICD said.
Last year, South Africa also detected the beta variant of the virus, although so far its number of infections has been determined by the Delta variant, which was initially detected in India.
The country has the highest number of pandemics in Africa with around 2.95 million cases, of which 89,657 have been fatal.
UK bans flights from six African countries
Britain said Thursday it was concerned about the newly identified variant that could make vaccines less effective and undermine efforts to fight the pandemic.
The British Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the variant had a spike protein that was drastically different from that of the original coronavirus on which the COVID-19 vaccines are based.
“This is the most significant variant that we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and susceptibility to the vaccine,” said the UKHSA chief executive, Jenny Harries.
The country announced on Friday that it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 12 p.m. GMT, and that British travelers returning from these destinations should be quarantined.
“What we do know is that there are a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations we have seen in the Delta variant,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters .
Javid said more data on the variant is needed, but travel restrictions are needed as a precaution.
WHO calls special meeting
The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding a special meeting on Friday to discuss the new variant.
“The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on COVID-19, in a question-and-answer session. broadcast live on the organization’s social networks. .
“Right now, researchers are meeting to understand where these mutations are found in the spike protein and furin cleavage site, and what this can potentially mean for our diagnostics or therapies and our vaccines,” he said. she declared.