A new Covid-19 variant could show immune evasion and enhanced transmissibility, South African scientists warn

“At first it looked like some cluster outbreak, but since yesterday, the signal has come from our scientists from the genome surveillance network that they were monitoring a new variant,” Health Minister Joe Bhalla said, stressing that it is currently unclear where the variant – it is currently called B. 1.1.529 – First appeared.

Bahla added that the virus has so far been detected in South Africa and Botswana, and in a traveler to Hong Kong from South Africa.

During a news briefing, genomics scientists said the variant contains an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the key spike protein – the structure the virus uses to reach the cells it attacks.

Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemiological Response and Innovation, said the variant had “many more spikes than we expected”, adding that it was “spreading very quickly and we expect to see stress in the health system in the next few days and weeks”.

He advised the public to “try to avoid publicizing events widely.”

Officials also expressed concern that the mutation could lead to immune evasion and enhanced transmission of the virus, but added that it was too early to know what kind of effect the mutations would have on the efficacy of the vaccine. Officials said more studies are also needed to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants.

“The full significance of this alternative remains uncertain and the best tool we have is still vaccines,” de Oliveira said. He added that lab studies are still needed to test the vaccine and avoid the antibodies.

Britain bans flights from 6 African countries

Also on Thursday, British officials announced that six African countries would be added to the “red list” for travel in England after Britain’s Health Security Agency expressed concern about the alternative.

British Health Minister Sajid Javid said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday on Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list – meaning UK residents, British and Irish nationals. Upon arrival home from those departure points, they must be subject to a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.

“UKHSA is studying a new species. More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now,” Javid said, adding that the variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and that “the vaccines we currently have may be less effectiveness “.

Javid added that the UK “has not detected any of this new species” in the country so far.

On Friday, South African officials will brief the World Health Organization, which has designated B.1.1.529 as a “variable under monitoring”.

South Africa, like many countries in the region, has suffered three major waves of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. While the number of new infections nationwide remains relatively low and positivity levels are below 5%, public health officials have already expected a fourth wave due to the slow uptake of the vaccine.

CNN’s Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.

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