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.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.
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 is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may 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 effective Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
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.
After a period of relatively low transmission in which South Africa recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, in the past week the daily new cases rapidly increased to more than 1,200 on Wednesday. On Thursday they jumped to 2,465.
To date, the delta variant remains by far the most infectious and has crowded out other once-worrying variants including alpha, beta and mu. According to sequences submitted by countries worldwide to the world’s biggest public database, more than 99% are delta.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.