Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says a new coronavirus variant found in South Africa “is not worrying” but closely monitored.

The new variant is described as a “constellation” of new mutations, and local scientists are concerned about the high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

Morrison says that although the new variant does not worry Australia now, that may change.

South Africa has registered more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 89,000 deaths. It has now reported a new rapidly mutating variant of the virus. (AP)

“I am informed that it is under investigation and not a variant of concern. But that may change. We are monitoring all of these variants,” Mr Morrison said.

“We take note of the responses coming from other countries and we consider them in real time.

“What’s more important is the best protection against all varieties, and those that are present are vaccination.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt says there are no plans to change travel restrictions between Australia and South Africa at present and that no cases have been identified locally.

“At this point, there is very little traffic between South Africa and Australia, and we also happen to be very vaccinated,” Hunt said.

“But when difficult decisions have been made in the past, we have not backed down and we will not back down now.”

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, said South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australia is closely monitoring the South African variant. (Nine)

The World Health Organization’s technical working group is holding meetings to assess the new variant and can decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

The UK government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other South African countries with effect from noon today (23:00 AEDT) and that anyone who had recently arrived from these countries would be asked to take a coronavirus -test.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out.

Researchers are monitoring for possible changes that may be more transmissible or fatal, but it may take time to find out if new variants will have an impact on public health.

South Africa has seen a dramatic increase in new infections, Mr Phaahla said at an online press briefing yesterday.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential increase,” he said, adding that the new variant seems to be driving the peak in cases.

Researchers in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases are caused by the new variant.

British experts believe that the variant can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines to as little as 30 percent.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there was concern that the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.

Flights from South Africa and five other African countries to the UK will be suspended from Friday, Mr Javid said.

British Health Minister Savid Javid said the new variant discovered in South Africa may be more transferable than the Delta variant. (Getty)

The new variant has a “constellation of new mutations,” said Tulio de Oliveira, of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, which has tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country.

The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” Mr de Oliveira said.

“This new variant has many, many more mutations,” including more than 30 to the tip protein that affect transmissibility, he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We expect to start seeing pressure in healthcare over the next few days and weeks.”

Sir. de Oliveira said a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant.

They have 100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.

“We are concerned about the leap in development in this variant,” he said.

The one good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.

The new Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 - also known as 2019-nCoV - is shown under a microscope.  The virus causes COVID-19.
The new B.1.1.529 variant has been detected in patients from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. (AP)

After a period of relatively low transmission, with South Africa registering just over 200 new confirmed cases a day, daily new cases rose rapidly to more than 1,200 on Wednesday in the past week.

Yesterday they ran to 2465.

“This is clearly a variant that we need to be very serious about,” said Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge.

“It has a high number of peak mutations that can affect transmissibility and immune response.”

South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has registered more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 89,000 deaths.

To date, the Delta variant remains by far the most contagious and has supplanted other once-worrying variants, including alpha, beta and mu.

According to sequences submitted by countries around the world to the world’s largest public database, more than 99 percent are Delta.

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