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New COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong

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Scientists have detected a new COVID-19 variant in South Africa and are working to understand its potential implications, media report indicated yesterday.

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They have confirmed around 100 specimens, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa.

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The variant, which is called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference.
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.

As many as 90 per cent of new cases in Gauteng could be the new variant, scientists believe.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the new variant have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing.
“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told the news conference.
“The variant has a very high number of mutations. It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he added.

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South Africa Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.

Daily infections jumped to more than 1,200 on Wednesday, up from about 100 earlier this month.

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

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

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

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

The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant.

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