A new variant of covid, potentially more contagious and with multiple mutations, has been detected in South Africa, which may face a new pandemic wave, scientists reported Thursday.
In fact, the number of daily infections in this country, the worst hit in the continent by the pandemic, has multiplied by ten since the beginning of the month.
The variant B.1.1.529 it has an “extremely high” number of mutations and “we can see that it has a very high potential for spread,” said virologist Tulio de Oliveira during an online press conference of the Ministry of Health.
His team at the KRISP research institute, which belongs to the University of Kwazulu-Natal, discovered the beta variant, which is highly contagious, last year.
After the announcement, the British government announced that it was banning travel with South Africa and five neighboring countries (Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana) amid fears that the variant is even more contagious than the delta.
Mutations of the initial virus can make it more contagious until it becomes dominant. This was the case with the delta variant, initially discovered in India and which, according to the WHO, reduced the effectiveness of vaccines against the transmission of the disease to 40%.
For now, South African scientists do not know if existing vaccines are effective against this new form of the virus.
What worries us is that this variant could not only have a higher transmission capacity, but it could also be able to bypass parts of our immune system, “said Professor Richard Lessells, another researcher.
So far, 22 cases have been detected, mainly in young people, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD, for its acronym in English). There were also cases in the neighboring Botswana and in Hong Kong, in a person who returned from a trip to South Africa.
The WHO must meet this Friday to determine the danger of the variant.
There are many variants, but some do not influence the progression of the epidemic, “said John Nkengasong, from the African Union Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), during a press conference.
But for now, “the number of detected cases and the percentage of positive tests is increasing rapidly,” especially in Gauteng, the most populous province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg, the NICD confirmed in a statement.
As the scientists warned, health structures have to anticipate the arrival of a new wave of sick in the next days or weeks.
South Africa, which is officially the country most affected by the virus on the continent, registered an increase in infections in recent weeks. This hike, which was first attributed to the delta variant, is the fault of the new variant. It represents a “greater threat,” declared Health Minister Joe Phaahla.
This new variant of the covid “reinforces the fact that this invisible enemy that we face is very unpredictable,” he added.
South Africa accumulates 2.9 million infections and 89,600 deaths. On Wednesday, 1,200 infections were registered in just 24 hours, against a hundred at the beginning of the month.
Authorities fear a new pandemic wave before the end of the year. Only 35% of eligible adults are fully vaccinated.
In the world, Europe is currently the new epicenter of the pandemic. A new lockdown came into effect in Austria on Monday, while France announced a tightening of sanitary measures. Germany on Thursday exceeded 100,000 deaths from covid since the start of the pandemic.
The coronavirus has killed more than 5.16 million people worldwide since its appearance in China in late 2019.
The WHO estimates that if the excess mortality related directly and indirectly to the covid is taken into account, the number of victims of the pandemic could be two to three times higher.