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New COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa has scientists concerned

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: U.K. bans flights from South Africa, some neighbouring countries after variant identified' COVID-19: U.K. bans flights from South Africa, some neighbouring countries after variant identified
WATCH: British Transport Minister Grant Shapps said Friday that the U.K. has banned flights from South Africa and some neighbouring countries after a new COVID-19 variant was identified. – Nov 26, 2021

South African scientists have detected 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 “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 told reporters at a news conference.

Read more: What is the new COVID-19 mutation known as ‘Delta plus’? Here’s what we know

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

In a regular daily update on confirmed cases countrywide, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) later reported 2,465 new COVID-19 infections, slightly less than double the previous day’s infections. The NICD did not attribute the latest resurgence to the new variant, although some leading local scientists suspect it is the cause.

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

“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,” South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement.

Read more: Subtype of COVID-19 Delta variant spreading in Western Canada

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

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant.

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

Beta is one of only four labeled “of concern” by the WHO because there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Has a new strain of the Delta variant emerged in Western Canada?' COVID-19: Has a new strain of the Delta variant emerged in Western Canada?
COVID-19: Has a new strain of the Delta variant emerged in Western Canada? – Nov 9, 2021

The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant and still only accounts for a small percentage of genomes sequenced in recent months.

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Meanwhile, six African countries are set to be added to England’s travel “red list” after the UK Health Security Agency flagged concern over the new variant, Britain’s health minister Sajid Javid said on Thursday.

“UKHSA is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Javid said in a tweet.

“From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travelers must quarantine.”

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