South African scientists said on Thursday they had detected a new variant of Covid-19 with multiple mutations, blaming it for an increase in the number of infections.
“Unfortunately, we have detected a new variant which is a cause for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira said at a hastily called press conference.
The variant, which carries the scientific lineage number B.1.1.529, “has a very high number of mutations,” he said.
“This unfortunately causes an upsurge in infections,” he said.
It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, he said.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was “of serious concern” and causing an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.
Daily infections reached over 1,200 on Wednesday, up from around 100 earlier this month.
Before the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted that a fourth wave would hit South Africa from mid-December, carried by travel before the holiday season.
The government-run National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the B.1.1.529 variant have been recorded in the country as a result of genomic sequencing.
He said in a statement on Thursday that detected cases and the percentage of positive tests “were increasing rapidly” in three of the country’s provinces, including Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.
A cluster outbreak was recently identified, concentrated in a higher education institute in the capital Pretoria, the NICD said.
Last year, South Africa also detected the beta variant of the virus, although so far its number of infections has been determined by the Delta variant, which was initially detected in India.
The country has the highest number of pandemics in Africa with around 2.95 million cases, of which 89,657 have been fatal.
Scientists said the new B.1.1.529 variant had at least 10 mutations, compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.
“What worries us (is) that this variant might not only have improved transmissibility, therefore spread more efficiently, but might also be able to bypass parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system.” , said the researcher. Richard Lessells.
So far, the variant has spread especially among young people.
But the days and weeks ahead will be critical in determining the severity of the variant, Lessells said.
Neutralizing the variant is “complicated by the number of mutations that this variant contains,” said one of the scientists, Penny Moore.
“This variant contains a lot of mutations that we don’t know about,” she added.
After a rather slow start to the vaccination campaign in South Africa, around 41 percent of adults have received at least a single dose, while 35 percent are fully immunized.