KEY POINTS

  • South African researchers discovered the new variant in the Gauteng province
  • The UK has canceled all flights to South Africa

A new COVID-19 variant with numerous mutations that could be more contagious has been discovered in South Africa.

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Thursday announced that researchers have identified the variant, identified as B.1.1.529, in the country's economic hub, the Gauteng province. The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong. 

"We don't know very much about this yet. 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," WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said in a Q&A. 

Van Kerkhove added that researchers are studying the new COVID-19 variant and what this may potentially mean for "our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines."

As of Thursday, South African health officials have detected the new variant in 22 COVID-19 cases in the country. At least four cases of the new variant were also found in people who are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Health authorities in the U.K. have added South Africa to the country’s “red list” for travelers. All flights going to the six countries in the region have been canceled.

"More data is needed but we're taking precautions now. From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned and U.K. travelers must quarantine," Sajid Javid, the U.K.’s secretary of state for health and social care, announced on Twitter.

Despite the spread of the B.1.1.529 variant, COVID-19 case numbers in South Africa remain well below the figures reported during the country’s Delta surge earlier this year, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

As of Thursday, South Africa, Eswatini and Zimbabwe are rated as “COVID-19 low,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel advisory. Namibia is rated as “COVID-19 moderate,” Lesotho as “COVID-19 high” and Botswana as “COVID-19 very high.”

Every body that arrives at the morgue has to be swabbed for Covid-19 by staff swathed in head-to-toe protective suits and face masks and shields Every body that arrives at the morgue has to be swabbed for Covid-19 by staff swathed in head-to-toe protective suits and face masks and shields Photo: AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA