A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.
South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing.
“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.
The World Health Organization’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The British government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon (1200GMT) on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.
The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, said 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 immune evasion and transmissibility,” said de Oliveira.
“This new variant has many, many more mutations,” including more than 30 to the spike protein that affects transmissibility, he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.”
De Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have 100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
“We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant,” he said. The one piece of good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.