A new variant of the coronavirus detected in South Africa appears to be mutating and spreading rapidly among younger patients, officials said 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 Minister of Health Joe Phaahla.
Phaahla told an online news briefing Thursday that “in the past four or five days there has been a more exponential increase” in the variant.
Health officials have expressed concern that the variant could lead to immune breakout and greater transmission of the virus, but said it was still too early to determine its impact.
The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, according to Tulio de Oliveira, of the Genomic Surveillance Network in South Africa, which has been tasked with tracking the spread of the variant in the country. The new variant has so far more than 30 mutations.
The “very high number of mutations is a concern for the predicted immune escape and transmissibility,” said de Oliveira.
“We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very quickly,” he said. “We expect to see pressure in 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 due to meet on Friday to determine if the variant is large enough to be given a name from the Greek alphabet.
In response to the outbreak, the UK on Thursday halted travel to six countries in the region: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended at noon on Friday.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the currently dominant delta strain.
“The vaccines we have now may be less effective” against her, he added.
With post wires