“Initially it looked like cluster epidemics, but as of yesterday our scientists at the Genomic Surveillance Network have indicated that they are seeing a new variant,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla, noting that it is currently not clear where the variant – currently dubbed B.1.1.529 – first appeared.
It has so far been detected in South Africa, Botswana and in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong, Phaahla added.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “a lot more mutations than expected”, adding that it “is spreading very quickly and we expect to see pressures in the system. health in the next few days and weeks. ”
He advised the public to “try to avoid mass market events.”
Officials also expressed concern that the mutation could lead to immune breakout and increased transmissibility of the virus, but added that it was too early to say what kind of impact the mutations will have on the vaccine’s effectiveness. . Further studies are also needed to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants, officials said.
“The full meaning of this variant remains uncertain and the best tool we have are vaccines,” De Oliveira said. He added that laboratory studies are yet to be conducted to test for vaccine and antibody escape.
UK bans flights from 6 African countries
Also on Thursday, British officials announced that six African countries would be added to England’s travel “red list” after the British Health Security Agency raised concerns about the variant.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid has said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and that the six countries will be added to the red list, ie UK residents and UK and Irish nationals. arriving home from these departure points must undergo a 10 day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
Javid added that the UK “has not detected any of these new variants” in the country so far.
South African officials will inform the World Health Organization, which has classified B.1.1.529 as a “watch variant” on Friday.
CNN’s Duarte Mendonca contributed to this report.