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 led both Britain 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. Scientists quickly became concerned by the new variant because of its high number of mutations. Their worry 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 South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases. It's also been detected in Botswana, South Africa's neighbor to the north, and Hong Kong. 

"This variant did surprise us," Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, said in a press conference on Thursday. "It has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta." Whether these mutations will translate to a more dangerous, transmissible and vaccine-resistant form of COVID is as yet unknown.  COVID constantly mutates, and many of those mutations don't substantially affect the virus.

Experts at the World Health Organization will meet on Friday about the new variant, de Oliveira said, where he expects the variant will get a Greek name following the likes of beta and delta.

"We don't know very much about this yet," said the World Health Organization's technical lead of COVID, Maria Van Kerkhove, in a live stream on Thursday. "What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves." "It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant will have."

On Thursday UK Secretary for State Health Sajid Javid announced that South Africa and five other southern African countries, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, would enter the UK's travel red list. Flights to those countries are being stopped, while travellers returning to the UK from those countries will have to quarantine. Israel has done the same, adding a sixth country, Mozambique, to its list. 

That a new variant has emerged in Africa comes as little surprise to many epidemiologists. Viruses, like the one that causes COVID, mutate during the process of replication. In places with low vaccinations and high case numbers, new variants are more likely to arise, as in the case of Delta's emergence from India.

African countries have low vaccination rates, and huge parts of the population are too poor to miss work via shelter in place orders or to seek medical help.

South Africa is the richest country in Africa, yet only has a double vaccination rate of around 23%.