A new Covid-19 variant could show immune evasion and improved transmissibility, warns South African researchers

“At first it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday came the indication from our researchers from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla, stressing that it is currently unclear where the variant is. – currently christened B.1.1.529 – first appeared.

It has so far been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and by a traveler to Hong Kong from South Africa, Phaahla added.

During a news briefing, genomic scientists said the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the key nail protein – the structure that the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “many more mutations than we expected,” adding that it “is spreading very fast and we expect to see pressure in the health system in it. next few days and weeks. ”

He advised the public to “try to avoid super-proliferation events.”

Officials also expressed concern that the mutation could result in immunosuppression and increased transmissibility of the virus, but added that it is too early to say what effect the mutations will have on the effectiveness of the vaccine. More studies also need to be conducted to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants, officials said.

“The full significance of this variant remains uncertain and the best tool we have is still the vaccines,” De Oliveira said. He added that laboratory tests still need to be performed to test vaccine and antibody evasion.

Britain bans flights from 6 African countries

Also on Thursday, British officials announced that six African countries would be added to England’s “red list” after the British Health Security Agency had expressed concern over the variant.

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British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said flights to Britain from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from Friday noon and all six countries would be added to the red list – meaning residents of Britain and British and Irish nationals Arriving home from these points of departure, you must undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at your own expense.

“UKHSA is investigating a new variant. More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now,” Javid said, adding that the variant identified in South Africa “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain, and that “the vaccines we currently has may be less effective. ”

Javid added that the UK “has not discovered any of this new variant” in the country so far.

On Friday, South African officials will brief the World Health Organization, which has classified B.1.1.529 as a “variant under surveillance.”

South Africa, like much of the region, has suffered three significant Covid-19 waves since the start of the pandemic. While the number of new infections across the country is now still relatively low and positivity levels are below 5%, public health authorities have already predicted a fourth wave due to a slow vaccine intake.

CNN’s Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.

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