The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are of concern because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters. at a press conference.
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Early signs from diagnostic labs suggest the variant has grown rapidly in the most populous province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces, they said.
South Africa has confirmed around 100 specimens as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with Hong Kong’s case being a traveler from South Africa. Scientists say up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529.
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“Although the data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases said in a statement. .
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South Africa on Friday requested an urgent meeting of a World Health Organization (WHO) virus evolution working group to discuss the new variant.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose more stringent restrictions in response to the variant.
South Africa was the first country to detect the beta variant last year.
Beta is one of only four labeled “of concern” by the WHO because it has been shown to be more contagious and vaccines work less well against it.
The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant and still only represents a small percentage of genomes sequenced in recent months.
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