New COVID variant detected in South Africa triggers UK travel ban.
A new variant of the coronavirus detected in South Africa appears to be rapidly mutating and spreading among younger patients, authorities announced Thursday.
The new variant, dubbed B.1.1.529 by scientists, has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, and in a South African traveler to Hong Kong, according to South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla.
Phaahla told an online press conference on Thursday that “for the last four or five days, there has been a more exponential increase” in the variant.
Health officials expressed concern that the variant could result in immune evasion and further transmission of the virus, but have said it is too early to determine its impact.
The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, according to Tulio de Oliveira of the South African Genomic Surveillance Network, which is tasked with tracking the spread of the variant in the country. The new variant so far has more than 30 mutations.
The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” de Oliveira said.
“We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast,” he said. “We hope to start seeing pressure on the healthcare system in the coming days and weeks.”
Only 41 percent of South Africans have been vaccinated against the virus.
A team from the World Health Organization is scheduled to meet on Friday to determine if the variant is significant enough to receive a name from the Greek alphabet.
In response to the outbreak, the UK halted travel to six countries in the region on Thursday: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended at noon on Friday.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “might be more transmissible” than the currently dominant delta strain.
“The vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it, he added.