(CNN) – There is a new variant of the coronavirus in South Africa. And it appears to be spreading rapidly across the country. This is what we know so far.
What is the name of the new variant?
On Thursday, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla reported that scientists from the country’s Genomic Surveillance Network discovered a new variant of covid-19.
It is currently called B.1.1.529.
The World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as a “variant under surveillance”.
Where has it been detected?
Although scientists are not clear exactly where the new variant originated, it has already been detected in several areas.
According to Phaahla, B.1.1.529 has been detected in South Africa, Botswana and in a traveler to Hong Kong from South Africa.
Why is it different from the other variants?
On December 18, 2020, variant B.1.351, also called beta, was detected in South Africa.
However, with B.1.1.529, the scientists said it has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the key spike protein.
Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), said that this variant has “many more mutations than we expected.” And he said it is spreading rapidly, so they expect to see pressure on the health system in the coming weeks.
De Oliveira advised people to avoid over-propagation events.
How transmissible is it?
It is not yet clear.
South African authorities expressed concern that the mutation could lead to immune evasion and increased transmissibility.
However, they said it is too early to know the impact of those mutations on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
More studies will be needed to know the clinical severity of the variant with respect to the others detected.
The situation of covid-19 in South Africa
Since the start of the pandemic, South Africa has faced three major waves of covid-19.
Although it is true that currently the number of new infections is relatively low and the levels of positivity are less than 5%, the country lags behind in terms of vaccination.
While more than half of the world’s population has received, on average, at least one dose of the covid-19 vaccine, the vaccination rate in South Africa is 28%.
For comparison, the United Arab Emirates has a partial vaccination rate of 98% and Brazil 75%.
Ban on flights to the UK
Concerned that variant B.1.1.529 “may be more transmissible” than the delta strain, the United Kingdom on Thursday added six African countries to its “red list” of trips.
Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe have been suspended from noon on Friday.
A country being on the “red list” means that UK residents and British and Irish nationals who come home from there must undergo a 10-day quarantine in a hotel at their own expense.
What south africa said
In response, the South African government said the UK’s temporary ban decision “appears to have been hasty.”
“While South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK appears to have been rushed, as even the World Organization of Health has not yet advised on the next steps, “says the government statement.
The Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, stated that the “immediate concern” is the damage that may be caused to tourism and companies in both countries.
South Africa announced that it will seek to persuade the British government to “reconsider” the decision.
With information from David McKenzie and Ghazi Balkiz.