South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla says the variant is behind the “exponential” growth of COVID infections.
South African scientists have detected a new variant of COVID-19 in small numbers and are working to understand its potential consequences.
The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, and is worrisome because it can help prevent the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists said at a news conference Thursday.
The National Institute of Transmitted Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the new variant have been recorded in the country after genomic sequencing.
“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant that is a cause for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira said at a press conference.
The variant “has a very large number of mutations,” he said. “Unfortunately it is causing a resurgence of infections,” he added.
They have also been caught in Botswana and Hong Kong among South African travelers, he said.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind the “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it a “major threat”.
Daily infections jumped to more than 1,200 on Wednesday, up from about 100 earlier this month.
Before detecting the new variant, authorities announced that there would be a fourth wave in South Africa by mid-December, boosting travel before the holidays.
The NICD said in a statement on Thursday that the cases detected and the percentage of positives were “rapidly increasing” in the country’s three provinces, including Johannesburg and Pretoria, including Gauteng.
A cluster outbreak has recently been identified, concentrated in a higher education institute in the capital Pretoria, the NICD said.
“Despite the limited data, our experts are working overtime with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and the consequences it may have,” he said.
Since the start of the pandemic, South Africa has registered about 2.95 million cases of COVID-19, of which 89,657 have been fatal.
Dr. Lessells adds that the data suggest sustainable growth # COVID-19 Gauteng’s incidence, perhaps driven by cluster appearances. Work needs to be done to understand the importance of work #NewVariation. Vaccines remain critical. # B11529 pic.twitter.com/4zlderzifQ
– NICD (@nicd_sa) November 25, 2021
Scientists say the new variant B.1.1.529 has at least 10 mutations, compared to two in Delta or three in Beta.
“What worries us (is) that this variant can not only improve transmissibility but also spread it more efficiently, but also be able to overcome parts of the immune system and our protection in our immune system,” he said. Researcher Richard Lessells.
So far the variant has been seen to spread mainly among young people.
But the coming days and weeks will be key to determining the severity of the variant, Lessells said.
South Africa on Friday called for an urgent meeting of a World Health Organization (WHO) working group to discuss a new variant on the evolution of the virus.
Health Minister Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions on the variant.
South Africa was the first country to detect the Beta variant last year.
Beta is one of only four that the WHO has identified as “worrying” because there is evidence that it is more contagious and that vaccines work less against it.