South Africa detects new coronavirus variant; six Southern African countries added to UK’s travel red list

Health authorities in South Africa say they have detected a new coronavirus variant. There are concerns that current vaccines could be less effective against it.

The authorities said on Thursday that the new variant was detected in the province of Gauteng, where the capital Pretoria and the largest city of Johannesburg are located.

Officials said they have so far confirmed 77 cases of the new variant in the country, and the number of infections is rapidly increasing. They add that the new variant could be spreading outside Gauteng.

Scientists believe as many as 90 percent of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, with detected cases in North West and Limpopo also increasing rapidly.

The appearance of this variant is probably the reason for the “exponential” increase in infections in recent weeks, according to Health Minister Joe Phaahla, who attended the press conference.

South Africa, which fears a new wave of the pandemic by the end of the year, is officially the continent’s worst affected by the pandemic. It has more than 2.9 million cases and more than 89,600 deaths.

“We have unfortunately detected a new variant that is a cause for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told an online press conference.

He explained that the high number of spike mutations – believed to be at least 32 at the moment – raise concerns about its ability to evade vaccines and to spread.

The spike protein is what helps the virus to invade the body’s cells and currently, the full significance of the new variant is not yet known.

Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial Department of Infectious Disease in the UK, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday a “very small cluster of a variant associated with Southern Africa with very long branch length and really awful Spike mutation profile” had been spotted.

It was first detected in South Africa, with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stating on Thursday that it had confirmed 22 positive cases, with more cases being confirmed as test results come out.

It has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, the case in Hong Kong being a traveler from South Africa.

“It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa,” said Professor Adrian Puren, NICD Acting Executive Director.

“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” he added.

The World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said not much is known about the new variant yet. She said researchers are studying what the mutations may mean for therapeutics and vaccines.

The WHO plans to discuss whether to designate the new variant as a variant of interest or a variant of concern.

Meanwhile, South Africa and five other countries will be added to England’s red list, a month after the most stringent travel restrictions were lifted.

The return of the red list comes as the B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant was detected in South Africa and Botswana.

Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, has said that six countries will be added to the red list at 12:00GMT on Friday 26 November. He also added that flights would be temporarily banned between these nations and the UK.

“The first indications we have of this variant are that it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and that the vaccines we currently have may be less effective,” says Javid.

According to him, British scientists are “very concerned” with this variant.

“We will ask anyone arriving from these countries from 4 a.m. on Sunday to quarantine themselves in hotels,” Javid said, adding that those arriving before that date will have to self-isolate and do two PCR tests on the second and eighth day of their confinement.

“And if someone has arrived from these countries in the last ten days, we will ask them to do PCR tests,” he adds.

And corroborating, experts have said that the B.1.1.529 variant could be the most lethal and worrying yet. This is because of its “awful spike mutation profile”, which scientists fear could help it evade immunity. Early reports suggest it is capable of reducing vaccine efficiency to just 30 percent.

There are already identified cases of the variant in South Africa, Hong Kong, and Botswana – which the World Health Organization is expected to name ‘Nu’ – but none have been reported in the UK.

It is believed that officials will now be hoping to track down hundreds of people who have arrived in the UK from South Africa over the past week, in an attempt to avoid introducing the new strain. More than 500 passengers is reported to arrive in the UK from South Africa every day.

Recall that Britain has been among the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, with 144,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The number of cases remains high – more than 47,000 in the past 24 hours on Thursday – but more than 80 percent of people aged 12 and over have received a double injection of the vaccine, and almost 30 percent have had a third dose.

The UK government has been widely criticized for being slow to tighten travel restrictions at the start of the pandemic when it kept its borders open as infection rates skyrocketed.

Dr. Michelle Groome, an official from NICD, said that in the face of the new variants people “should get vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, maintain social distancing, and gather in well-ventilated spaces” to limit its spread.

LENS with inputs from agencies

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