South African scientists have expressed concern about a new COVID-19 variant that has been detected in small numbers, and are working to understand its potential implications.
The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists said on Thursday.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the new variant have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing.
“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, told a news conference.
The variant “has a very high number of mutations”, he said. “It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he added.
It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, he said.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.
Daily infections jumped to more than 1,200 on Wednesday, up from about 100 earlier this month.
Before the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted a fourth wave to hit South Africa starting around the middle of December, buoyed by travel ahead of the festive season.
The NICD said in a statement on Thursday that detected cases and the percentage testing positive were “increasing quickly” in three of the country’s provinces including Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital.
A cluster outbreak, concentrated at a higher education institute in Pretoria had recently been identified, the NICD said.
“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,” it said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, South Africa has recorded about 2.95 million cases of COVID-19, of which 89,657 have been fatal.