“Initially it looked like cluster epidemics, but as of yesterday our scientists at the Genomic Surveillance Network have indicated that they are seeing a new variant,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla, noting that it is currently not clear where the variant – currently dubbed B.1.1.529 – first appeared.
It has so far been detected in South Africa, Botswana and in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong, Phaahla added.
At a press briefing, genomics scientists said the variant had an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the 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 “a lot more mutations than expected”, adding that it “is spreading very quickly and we expect to see pressures in the system. health in the next few days and weeks. “
Officials also expressed concern that the mutation could lead to immune breakout and increased transmissibility of the virus, but added that it was too early to say what kind of impact the mutations will have on the vaccine’s effectiveness. . Further studies are also needed to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants, officials said.
“The full meaning of this variant remains unclear and the best tool we have are vaccines,” De Oliveira said. He added that laboratory studies are yet to be conducted to test for vaccine and antibody escape.
UK bans flights from 6 African countries
Also on Thursday, British officials announced that six African countries would be added to England’s travel “red list” after the British Health Security Agency raised concerns about the variant.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid has said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and that the six countries will be added to the red list, ie UK residents and UK and Irish nationals. arriving home from these departure points must undergo a 10 day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
“UKHSA is studying a new variant. More data is needed but we are taking precautions now, ”Javid said, adding that the variant identified in South Africa“ may be more transmissible ”than the Delta strain and that“ the vaccines we currently have may be less effective. ”
Javid added that the UK “hasn’t detected any of these new variants” in the country so far.
South African officials will inform the World Health Organization, which has classified B.1.1.529 as a “watch variant” on Friday.
South Africa, like much of the region, has suffered three significant waves of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. While the number of new infections across the country is still relatively low and positivity levels are below 5%, public health officials have already predicted a fourth wave due to slow vaccination.
CNN’s Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.