“At first it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday came the indication from our researchers from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they observed a new variant,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla, emphasizing that it is currently unclear which variant – currently called B .1.1.529 – first appeared.
It has so far been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and by a traveler to Hong Kong from South Africa, Phaahla added.
During a news briefing, genomic researchers said variants has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in key spike protein – the structure the virus uses to enter the cells they attack.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “many more mutations than we expected”, adding that it “spreads very rapidly and we expect to see pressure in the health system in the next few days and weeks. ”
He advised the public to “try to avoid super-dispersal events.”
Officials also expressed concern that the mutation could result in immunosuppression and improved transmission of the virus, but added that it was too early to say what kind of impact the mutations would have on the vaccine’s effectiveness. More studies also need to be conducted to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants, officials said.
“The full significance of this variant is still uncertain and the best tool we have is still the vaccines,” said De Oliveira. He added that laboratory studies still need to be performed to test vaccine and antibody evasion.
The UK bans flights from 6 African countries
On Thursday, British officials announced that six African countries would be added to England’s “red list” for travel after the UK Health Authority flagged concerns over the variant.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be canceled from noon on Friday and that all six countries would be added to the red list – meaning residents of the UK and UK and Irish citizens arriving home from these points of departure must undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
“UKHSA is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we are taking precautionary measures now,” said Javid, adding that the variant identified in South Africa “may be more transferable” than Delta tribe and that “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective.”
Javid added that the UK “has not discovered any of this new variant” in the country so far.
On Friday, South African officials will inform the World Health Organization, which has classified B.1.1.529 as a “variant under surveillance”.
South Africa, as well as large parts of the region, has hit by three significant covid-19 waves since the pandemic began. While the number of new infections across the country is now still relatively low and positivity levels are below 5%, public health officials have already predicted a fourth wave due to a slow vaccine intake.