JOHANNESBURG – A new variant of coronavirus has been detected in South Africa which scientists say is a concern due to its high number of mutations and its 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 worrisome mutations, often simply disappear. Scientists monitor possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but determining whether the new variants will have an impact on public health can take time.
South Africa has seen a dramatic increase in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press conference.
“Over the last four or five days, there has been a more exponential increase,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the increase in cases. Scientists in South Africa they are working to determine what percentage of new cases has 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 will meet on Friday to evaluate the new variant and can 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 as of noon (1200GMT) on Friday, and that anyone who has recently arrived from those countries will be asked to undergo a coronavirus test.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “might be more transmissible” 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 has tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country.
The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immunological evasion and transmissibility,” de Oliveira said.
“This new variant has many, many more mutations,” including more than 30 in the spike protein that affect transmissibility, he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We hope to start seeing pressure on the healthcare system in the coming days and weeks. “
De Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have 100 complete genomes and expect to have many more in the coming days, he said.
“We are concerned about the leap in the evolution of this variant,” he said. The only good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.
After a relatively low transmission period in which South Africa registered just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, in the last week new daily cases rose rapidly to more than 1,200 on Wednesday. On Thursday they jumped to 2,465.
The first increase was in Pretoria and the surrounding metropolitan area of Tshwane and appeared to be outbreaks in clusters of student gatherings at universities in the area, Health Minister Phaahla said. Amid the increase in cases, scientists studied genomic sequencing and discovered the new variant.
“This is clearly a variant that we must take very seriously,” said Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “It has a large number of spike mutations that could affect transmissibility and immune response.”
Gupta said that scientists from South Africa You need time to determine if the increase in new cases is attributable 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 had warned that a new resurgence was expected from mid-December to early January and were hoping to prepare for that by vaccinating many more people, Phaahla said.
About 41% of South AfricaAdults have been vaccinated and the number of injections given per day is relatively low, less than 130,000, significantly below the government’s goal of 300,000 per day.
South Africa It currently has about 16.5 million doses of vaccines, from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, in the country and about 2.5 million more are expected to be delivered next week, according to Nicholas Crisp, acting director general of the national department. of health.
“We are getting vaccines faster than we are using them right now,” Crisp said. “So for some time now, we have postponed deliveries, not by reducing orders, but simply postponing our deliveries so as not to accumulate and store vaccines.”
South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has recorded more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 89,000 deaths.
To date, the delta variant remains by far the most infectious and has displaced other variants that were once of concern, including alpha, beta, and mu. According to the sequences submitted by countries around the world to the world’s largest public database, more than 99% are delta.
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