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Worries grow as South Africa detects new Covid variant with many mutations

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.

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.

South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing on Thursday.

“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. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have 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 travellers from South Africa, he said.

WHO team to assess new variant 

The WHO’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 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.

“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.”

De Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have 100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.

“We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant,” he said.

The one piece of good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.

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UK adds six African countries to red list

Six African countries will be added to England’s travel “red list” after the UK Health Security Agency flagged concern over the new coronavirus variant, Britain’s Health Minister Sajid Javid said.

“UKHSA is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Javid said in a tweet.

“From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine.”

“What we do know is there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” Javid told broadcasters.

“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.”

Delta variant remains most infectious

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 – first found in India – 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 percent are Delta.

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