A new coronavirus variant that has a “constellation” of new mutations has been discovered in South Africa.
Researchers say it is a problem due to its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, he said.
The World Health Organization’s technical working group will meet later today to assess the new variant and can decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
And the British government announced that it is banning flights from South Africa and five other South African countries with effect from 12.00 (1200 GMT) on Friday, and that everyone who had recently arrived from these countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
The coronavirus develops as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often just die out. Researchers are monitoring possible changes that may be more transmissible or fatal, but finding out if new variants will have an impact on public health may take time.
South Africa has seen a dramatic increase in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press conference on Thursday.
“In the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential increase,” he said, adding that the new variant seems to be driving the peak in cases. Researchers in South Africa are working to determine what proportion of the new cases have been caused by the new variant.
The new variant, currently identified as B.1.1.529, has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, Phaahla said.
The emergence of the new variant led the United Kingdom to place South Africa on its red list for travel.
British experts believe that the variant, which is spreading rapidly in South Africa, can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines to as little as 30 percent.
Britain’s Health Minister Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant Delta strain, and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.
Flights from South Africa and five other African countries to the UK will be canceled from Friday, Javid said.
The new variant has a “constellation of new mutations”, says Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, who has tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country.
The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immunosuppression and transmission capacity,” Mr de Oliveira said.
“This new variant has many, many more mutations,” including more than 30 of the nail protein that affects its ability to transmit, he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very quickly. We expect to start seeing pressure in healthcare in the next few days and weeks.”
Mr de Oliveira said a team of researchers from seven South African universities was studying the variant. They have 100 whole through of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
“We are concerned about the leap in evolution in this variant,” he said. One part of the good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.
After a period of relatively low transmission where South Africa registered just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, during the past week the number of daily new cases increased rapidly to more than 1200 on Wednesday. On Thursday, they jumped to 2465.
“This is clearly a variant that we must be very serious about,” said Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “It has a large number of nail mutations that can affect transmittance and immune response.”
South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has registered more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases including more than 89,000 deaths.
To date, the Delta variant is still by far the most contagious and has supplanted other once-worrying variants including alpha, beta and mu. According to sequences submitted by countries around the world to the world’s largest public database, more than 99 percent are Delta.