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South Africa detects new COVID-19 variant with multiple mutations

South Africa detects new COVID-19 variant with multiple mutations

JOHANNESBURG: South African scientists have detected a new COVID-19 variant in a small number of cases and are working to understand its potential implications.

“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference on Thursday (Nov 25).

“It is unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections.”

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations that could help the virus evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists said.

They added that early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant has spread rapidly in the most populated province of Gauteng – which includes Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria – and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”. The country’s daily COVID-19 infections shot to more than 1,200 on Wednesday, up from around 100 earlier this month.

However, it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response, said Phaahla.

The government-run National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) recorded 22 cases of the B.1.1.529 variant in the country following genomic sequencing.

“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” the institute said in a statement on Thursday.

Infections are “increasing quickly” in three provinces.

A cluster outbreak was recently identified, concentrated at a higher education institute in Pretoria, said NICD.

South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organization (WHO) working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.


Scientists said the new variant has at least 10 mutations, compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.

“What gives us some concerns (is) that this variant might have not just have enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” said researcher Richard Lessells.

So far the variant has been seen spreading especially among young people.

But the coming days and weeks will be key to determining the severity of the variant, Lessells said.

Neutralising the variant is “complicated by the number of mutations this variant” contains, said scientist Penny Moore.

“This variant contains many mutations that we are not familiar with,” she added.

Before the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted that a fourth wave would hit South Africa around the middle of December, buoyed by travel ahead of the festive season.

South Africa was the first country to detect the Beta variant last year.

Beta is one of only four labelled “of concern” by the WHO because there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it.

The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant and still only accounts for a small percentage of genomes sequenced in recent months.

After a rather slow start to South Africa’s vaccination campaign, around 41 per cent of adults have received at least a single dose, while 35 per cent are fully vaccinated.

The country has the highest pandemic numbers in Africa with around 2.95 million cases, of which 89,657 have been fatal.

South Africa detects new COVID-19 variant with multiple mutations

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