South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla stated Thursday that a new coronavirus strain had been discovered. Scientists are concerned about its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous region.
“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.
The new variation, now known as B.1.1.529, has been discovered in visitors from South Africa in Botswana and Hong Kong.
The World Health Organization’s technical working committee will meet on Friday to analyze the new variety and decide whether or not it should be given a Greek alphabet name.
According to Tulio de Oliveira of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, who has followed the distribution of the delta variation across the country, the new variant has a “constellation” of novel mutations.
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.”
According to De Oliveira, the variant is being studied by experts from seven South African universities. He stated they had 100 complete genomes of it and anticipated having many more in the coming days.
“We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant,” he said. However, one piece of good news is that a PCR test can detect it, he said.
The UK 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 British government said that flights from South Africa and five other southern African nations would be banned starting at noon (1200 GMT) on Friday. In addition, everyone who had just arrived from those countries would be required to take a coronavirus test.
After a period of relatively low transmission, when South Africa recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, the number of daily new cases climbed dramatically in the last week, reaching over 1,200 on Wednesday. They increased to 2,465 on Thursday.
According to health minister Phaahla, the first surge was in Pretoria and the adjacent Tshwane metropolitan area. After that, it seemed to be cluster outbreaks from student gatherings at universities in the area. As the number of cases increased, scientists looked into genetic sequencing and uncovered a novel variation, reported AP news.
“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 said scientists in South Africa need time to determine if the surge 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 identifying this quickly and bringing it to the world’s attention.”