(CNN) — The South African health minister announced on Thursday the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus that appears to be spreading rapidly in some areas of the country.
“Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but as of yesterday, our scientists at the Genomic Surveillance Network told us that they were looking at a new variant,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla, stressing that it is currently unclear where the virus arose. variant, currently called B.1.1.529.
Phaahla said the variant has been detected in South Africa, Botswana and in a traveler to Hong Kong from South Africa.
In a briefing, the scientists said the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the key spike protein.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), said that the variant has “many more mutations than we expected”, adding that “it is spreading very rapidly and we hope to see pressure in the health system. in the coming days and weeks. ” He advised the public to “try to avoid super spread events.”
Officials expressed concern that the mutation could lead to immune evasion and increased transmissibility, but stressed that it is too early to know what impact the mutations will have on the efficacy of the vaccine. They also said that more studies are needed to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous ones.
“The full meaning of this variant remains uncertain and the best tool we have is still vaccines,” de Oliveira said, adding that laboratory studies still need to be carried out to verify vaccine evasion and antibodies.
South Africa, like much of the region, has suffered three major waves of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Currently, the number of new infections in the country remains relatively low and positivity levels below 5%. Public health officials had already forecast a fourth wave due to the relatively slow absorption of the vaccine.
This Friday, the South African authorities will inform the World Health Organization (WHO), which has classified B.1.1.529 as a “variant under surveillance.”