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South Africa Raises Alarm over New COVID-19 Variant

Scientists in South Africa identified a concerning new variant of the coronavirus, whose mutation might make vaccines less effective.

The UK Health Security Agency said that the variant— called B.1.1.529— has a spike protein that was dramatically different from the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on.

Officials characterize the variant, which has double the number of mutations as the currently dominant Delta variant, as the “worst one yet”.

In the past two days, scientists detected the B1.1.529 variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg. So far, 22 positive cases have been identified in the country, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. One case has been detected in Hong Kong by someone who had traveled from South Africa. No cases have been detected yet in Britain.

In addition to South Africa, the countries of Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and Botswana are included in the new restrictions, according to a statement issued by the U.K.’s health, transport, and health security agencies

“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,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Technical Lead on COVID-19.

The newly detected variant arrives as infection levels remain high in countries across the world. In Europe, Austria and Italy announced new restrictions in recent days aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.