JOHANNESBURG: Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday they had detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, blaming it for a surge in infection numbers. The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month. “Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference. The variant, which goes by the scientific lineage number B.1.1.529, “has a very high number of mutations,” he said, expressing hope that the World Health Organization will give it a Greek name on Friday. “It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he said. The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, he added.
“The new variant has a constellation of new mutations,” said Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, who has tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country. “This new variant has many, many more mutations, including more than 30 to the spike protein that affects transmissibility,” he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.” De Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
The WHO said it is “closely monitoring” the reported variant and is expected to convene a technical meeting on Friday to determine if it should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”. “Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” the WHO added. South African health minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”. The country’s daily number of infections hit 1,200 on Wednesday, up from 106 earlier in the 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 government-run National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the B.1.1.529 variant have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing.