(JOHANNESBURG) — 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.
Coronavirus changes as it spreads. Many new variants of the virus, some with serious mutations or even death, occur. Although scientists are constantly looking for potential threats, such as those that can make it more fatal or transmittable to others, it is difficult to predict if any new variants might have adverse effects on the public’s health.
At an online briefing, Phaahla stated that South Africa had seen a drastic rise in the number of new infections.
“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. South Africa’s scientists are currently trying to find out how much of the cases were caused by this variant.
The current identification is B.1.1.529. He stated that this variant can also be found in Botswana or Hong Kong by South African travelers.
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.
British authorities announced on Friday that flights from South Africa would no longer be allowed. They also stated that five countries in southern Africa will not allow passengers to fly from the UK.
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 indicated that the variant is being studied by scientists from seven South African universities. The team has 100 complete genomes, and they expect more to be available in the coming days.
“We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant,” he said. He said that the good news was that the PCR test can detect it.
In contrast to the period when South Africa was experiencing relatively low levels of transmission and only 200 cases per day, this week has seen an increase in daily cases by more than 1,200. The number of confirmed cases rose to 2,465.
Phaahla, health minister, stated that the initial surge occurred in Pretoria as well as the Tshwane area. This was due to cluster outbreaks resulting from students gathering at local universities. Researchers discovered the new variant of HIV through genomic sequencing, amid the rising number of cases.
“This is clearly a variant that we must be very serious about,” said Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “It has a high number of spike mutations that could affect transmissibility and immune response.”
Gupta stated that scientists in South Africa will need to wait for more time in order to establish if the sudden increase in cases could be attributed to this new variant. “There is a high probability that this is the case,” he said. “South African scientists have done an incredible job of identifying this quickly and bringing it to the world’s attention.”
South African officials had previously warned about a possible resurgence between mid-December and early January. The goal was to get more people vaccinated to help prepare, according to Phaahla.
About 41% of South Africa’s adults have been vaccinated and the number of shots being given per day is relatively low, at less than 130,000, significantly below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.
South Africa currently has about 16.5 million doses of vaccines, by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, in the country and is expecting delivery of about 2.5 million more in the next week, according to Nicholas Crisp, acting director-general of the national health department.
“We are getting in vaccines faster than we are using them at the moment,” said Crisp. “So for some time now, we have been deferring deliveries, not decreasing orders, but just deferring our deliveries so that we don’t accumulate and stockpile vaccines.”
South Africa has a population greater than 60 million and more than 2 million COVID-19-related cases, including 89,000 deaths.
Delta is the most contagious variant and it has outsold alpha and beta variants. According to sequences submitted by countries worldwide to the world’s biggest public database, more than 99% are delta.