UPDATED with WHO news: The U.K. added six African countries to its travel quarantine list on Thursday after a new, potentially more-transmissible variant of Covid-19 was identified there. The BBC said the countries are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
Twenty-two positive cases of the variant, which is being called B.1.1.529, have been recorded in South Africa, according to multiple reports. Some 59 cases have been detected worldwide, and only in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. But some experts are concerned.
“This variant did surprise us,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform told the New York Times. “It has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta [variant].”
The World Health Organization has called a special meeting for Friday to the discuss the new variant and what it might mean for Covid treatment and vaccines.
“We don’t know very much about this yet,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid, said in a livestreamed Q&A on social media. “What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
The UK Health Security Agency also has its eye on B.1.1.529:
COVID-19 UPDATE:@UKHSA is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now.
From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine.
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) November 25, 2021
The new variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, which raises fears of increased transmissibility, according to a South African researcher cited by the Times. The new variant has 10 mutations alone on the ACE2 receptor, which helps the virus to enter cells. That’s five times more mutations on that structure than the Delta variant exhibits, according to the researcher.
In Botswana, the health ministry confirmed four cases of B.1.1.529 were found fully vaccinated patients. The single case in Hong Kong was carried there by a traveler from South Africa, according to multiple reports.
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement today that “detected cases and percent testing positive are both increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo [provinces]. Seventy-one percent of new cases today are from Gauteng, which accounts for about 25% of the country’s population, said the statement. In Gauteng case rates are rising rapidly, and test positivity is 31.7%. For comparison, in California it’s under 2%.
“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. Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date,” said Professor Adrian Puren, acting executive director of NICD.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.