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 have led Britain, Israel, Singapore and several European nations to block travel to southern Africa.
The Biden administration is monitoring the variant situation, according to CNN, but has yet to make a decision has been made on imposing travel restrictions. US stocks tumbled Friday in the face of the new variant, CNBC reported.
The variant, known as B.1.1.529, was first identified in South Africa on Tuesday. Scientists are concerned about 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, as well as Israel, Belgium and Hong Kong, which are thousands of miles away.
“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. Experts at the World Health Organization will meet on Friday about the new variant, de Oliveira said, and 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,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead of COVID, 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 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 be added to the UK’s travel red list. Flights to those countries are being stopped, while travelers returning to the UK from those countries will have to quarantine.
Singapore, Italy, France and Israel have also placed Mozambique on their red lists, the New York Times noted.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, tweeted Friday that it would also propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa.
The vaccine co-developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is the most widely administered in the US, according to CDC data, and a BioNTechspokesperson told Reuters it’ll quickly be able to determine how effective the vaccine is against the variant.
“We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally,” the spokesperson said Friday. An escape variant would resist the targeted immune response caused by vaccination.
That a new variant has emerged in Africa comes as little surprise to many epidemiologists. Viruses, like the one that causes COVID, mutate during replication. In places with low vaccinations and high case numbers, new variants are more likely to arise, as in the case of double vaccination rate of around 23%.. 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