JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Scientists in South Africa announced on Thursday that a new type of COVID-19 virus has been discovered in small numbers and are working to understand its possible implications.
The variant, called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which is worrying because it could help it escape the body’s immune reaction and become more transmissible, the scientists told reporters at a press conference.
They noted that early evidence from diagnostic laboratories suggested that the strain increased rapidly in Gauteng County, the country’s most populous province, and that it may already be present in its eight other provinces.
South Africa has confirmed about 100 samples as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong – the Hong Kong case is that of a South African traveler. Scientists believe that up to 90% of new Gauteng cases could be from B.1.1.529.
“While data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all existing surveillance systems to understand the new alternative and what the potential implications are,” South Africa’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases said in a statement.
The country is calling for an urgent meeting of the World Health Organization’s working group on the evolution of the virus on Friday to discuss the new alternative.
Health Minister Joe Bhala said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the alternative.
(Bur Alexander Winning)
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