Health Minister Joe Fahla announced Thursday that a new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in South Africa, which scientists say raises concern due to the high number of mutations and the rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with alarming mutations, often simply die. Scientists are tracking possible changes that could be more widespread or fatal, but figuring out whether new options will have an impact on public health can take time.
South Africa is seeing a sharp rise in new infections, Fahla said in an online press briefing.
“There has been more exponential growth in the past four or five days,” he said, adding that the new option appears to be contributing to the rise in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of new cases were caused by the new variant.
This new variant, currently designated B.1.1.529, has also been found in South African travelers in Botswana and Hong Kong, he said.
A World Health Organization technical working group is due to meet on Friday to evaluate the new version and decide whether to give it a name based on the Greek alphabet.
The British government announced that it will ban flights from South Africa and five other South African countries at noon (1200GMT) on Friday, and that anyone who has recently arrived from those countries will be asked to take a coronavirus test.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid said there are concerns that the new variant “may be more infectious” than the dominant delta strain and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.
The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, said Tulio de Oliveira of the Genomic Surveillance Network in South Africa, which tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country.
“The very high number of mutations raises concerns about predictable immune evasion and transmission,” de Oliveira said.
“This new variant has many, many other mutations,” including over 30 for the spike protein, which affects transmissibility, he said. “We see that this option is potentially spreading very quickly. We really expect to see pressure on the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks. ”
De Oliveira said a group of scientists from seven South African universities are studying the option. They have 100 complete genomes, he said, and there will be many more in the next few days.
“We are worried about the evolutionary leap in this scenario,” he said. One good news, he said, is that it can be detected using a PCR test.
After a period of relatively low transmission with just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in South Africa, the number of new daily cases jumped rapidly to over 1200 on Wednesday last week. On Thursday, they jumped to 2465.
The first outbreak occurred in Pretoria and the adjacent Tshwane metropolitan area, and appears to have originated from cluster outbreaks as a result of student gatherings at universities in the area, according to Health Minister Fahla. Against the background of the growing number of cases, scientists studied genomic sequencing and discovered a new variant.
“This is clearly an option that we need to take very seriously,” said Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “It has a large number of spike mutations that can affect transmissibility and immune response.”
Gupta said scientists in South Africa need time to determine if the increase in new cases is due to the new variant. “There is a high probability that this is the case,” he said. “South African scientists have done an incredible job of quickly identifying this and getting the world’s attention.”
South African officials have warned that a new resurgence is expected from mid-December to early January and hoped to prepare for this by vaccinating more people, Fahla said.
About 41% of the adult population in South Africa has been vaccinated, and the number of vaccinations per day is relatively low, at less than 130,000, well below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.
There are currently about 16.5 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson in South Africa, according to Nicholas Crisp, acting director general of the national health department, with an additional 2.5 million doses expected next week.
“We are introducing vaccines faster than we are using them now,” Crisp said. “So for some time now we have been postponing deliveries, not reducing orders, but simply postponing our deliveries so that we do not accumulate and accumulate vaccines.”
South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has recorded over 2.9 million cases of COVID-19, including over 89,000 deaths.
The delta variant remains the most contagious to date and has supplanted other once-worrisome variants, including alpha, beta and mu. More than 99% are delta based on sequences submitted by countries around the world to the largest publicly available database.