A new Covid-19 variant with high number of mutations sparks travel bans and worries scientists - CNN
Nov 26, 2021 2 mins, 20 secs

"Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant," Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said Thursday, stressing that it is currently unclear where the variant first emerged.

South African officials initially said there was one confirmed case in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong.

Then Hong Kong health authorities on Friday identified a second case of the B.1.1.529 variant among returning travelers on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel.

Also on Friday, the Belgian government said that one individual who had recently arrived from abroad, and was not vaccinated, had tested positive for the new variant, marking the first case in Europe.

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

Viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate regularly and most new mutations do not have significant impact on the virus's behavior and the illness they cause.

There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants," Ferguson said.

Sharon Peacock, a professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that while the overall number of Covid-19 cases is relatively low in South Africa, there has been a rapid increase in the past seven days.

She said that while 273 new infections were recorded on November 16, the figure had risen to more than 1,200 cases by November 25, with more than 80% coming from Gauteng province.

"The epidemiological picture suggests that this variant may be more transmissible, and several mutations are consistent with enhanced transmissibility," Peacock said in a comment shared by the UK's Science Media Centre.

"It is important not to assume that the variant first emerged in South Africa," Peacock said.

Quick reaction

Scientists have praised South African health authorities for their quick reaction to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country's Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.

When cases in the province started to rise at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, which allowed them to quickly identify the B.1.1.529 variant.

Peacock said the South African health ministry and its scientists "are to be applauded in their response, their science, and in sounding the alarm to the world."

She added that the development shows how important it is to have excellent sequencing capabilities and to share expertise with others.

The reaction to the announcement of the new variant discovered by South African health authorities was also prompt.

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