Scientists in South Africa have detected a new COVID-19 variant with numerous mutations rapidly increasing infections in parts of the country, they announced on Thursday.
“The variant has a ‘very unusual constellation of mutations’ and is different to the other variants of concern,” Tulio De Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) told a televised virtual briefing hosted by the country’s Health Ministry.
He said the new variant, known as B.1.1.529, was detected in samples from the northeastern province of Gauteng, which contains the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, on Nov. 12-22. The same variant has also been detected in neighboring Botswana, as well as Hong Kong.
“It was important for us to make this public. We thought the fourth wave would be in mid-December or early January … This invisible enemy we are dealing with is very unpredictable,” Health Minister Mathume Joseph Phaahla said at the same briefing.
Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert, said the new variant was detected in multiple samples tested at both public and private laboratories in Gauteng province.
“Epidemiological data suggests sustained increase in COVID-19 incidences across Gauteng, possibly fueled by the cluster outbreaks,” noted Lessells.
He added that experts were still observing the variant to understand its potential impact on the disease’s transmissibility and severity, and how it will affect with people with high immunity or who have been vaccinated.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, also confirmed the detection of the new variant.
“Twenty-two positive cases of variant B.1.1.529 have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing collaborations between the NICD and private laboratories. In addition, other NGS-SA laboratories are confirming more cases as sequencing results come out,” it said in a statement.
In August, South Africa detected the C.1.2, variant in all nine of its provinces. The C.1.2 lineage shares a few common mutations with the Beta and Delta variants.
The new lineage has a number of additional mutations, the NICD said at the time.
South Africa has the highest number of COVID-19 infections on the continent with total confirmed cases standing at more than 2.95 million and fatalities at 89,657.