New COVID variant found in South Africa, UK enforces new travel bans

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A new COVID variant has been discovered in South Africa, and fears that it may be more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than the Delta variant has caused both the UK and Israel to block travel to southern Africa.

The variant is known as B.1.1.529, and was first identified in South Africa on Tuesday. Researchers quickly became concerned about the new variant due to its high number of mutations. Their concern is that vaccines designed to target previous COVID variants may be less effective. There are 22 known cases of B.1.1.529 as of Thursday, according to the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases. It has also been discovered in Botswana, South Africa’s northern neighbor, and Hong Kong.

“This variant surprised us,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, said at a news conference on Thursday. “It has a big leap in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very serious third wave of Delta.”

Whether these mutations will translate into a more dangerous, transmissible and vaccine-resistant form of COVID is still unknown. COVID mutates constantly, and many of these mutations does not significantly affect the virus. Experts from the World Health Organization will meet on Friday about the new variant, said de Oliveira, where he expects the variant to have a Greek name after beta and delta.

“We do not know very much about this yet,” the World Health Organization’s technical director of COVID, Maria Van Kerkhove, said in a livestream on Thursday. “What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that having so many mutations can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what effect this variant will have.”

On Thursday, British Health Minister Sajid Javid announced that South Africa and five other South African countries, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, would be included in Britain’s red travel list. Flights to these countries will be stopped while travelers returning to the UK from these countries will be quarantined. Israel has done the same and added a sixth country, Mozambique, to its list.

That a new variant has emerged in Africa comes as no surprise to many epidemiologists. Viruses, such as the one that causes COVID, mutate during the replication process. In places with low vaccinations and high cases, new variants are more likely to occur, as in the case of Delta’s origin from India. African countries have low vaccination rates and large sections of the population are too poor to miss work through shelter in place or to seek medical attention. South Africa is the richest country in Africa, but has only a double vaccination rate of around 23%.

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