South Africa detects new COVID-19 variant, implications not yet clear

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 25 (Reuters) – South African scientists have discovered a new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and are working to understand its potential implications, they said on Thursday.

The variant — called B.1.1.529 — has a “highly unusual constellation” of mutations, which are worrisome because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference.

Early signs from diagnostic labs suggest the variant has increased rapidly in the most populous province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces, they said.

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South Africa has confirmed about 100 specimens as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with a traveler from South Africa in the case of Hong Kong. As many as 90% of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1,529, scientists believe.

“While data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what its potential implications may be,” the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases said in a statement.

South Africa has requested an urgent meeting of a World Health Organization (WHO) working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said it is too early to say whether the government will impose stricter restrictions in response to the variant.

South Africa was the first country to discover the Beta variant last year.

Beta is one of only four identified as “worrying” by the WHO because of evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines less effective against it.

The country discovered another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it hasn’t supplanted the more common Delta variant and still accounts for only a small percentage of the genomes sequenced in recent months. read more

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Reporting by Alexander Winning Editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Potter

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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