Minister for Health 'deeply concerned' following detection of new Covid variant 

Minister for Health 'deeply concerned' following detection of new Covid variant 
A young woman receives a Pfizer jab against Covid-19 in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg (Denis Farrell/AP)

Minister Stephen Donnelly is “deeply concerned” following the emergence of a new variant of Covid-19 while the Department of Health continues to liaise with UK authorities on the matter.

In a statement, the Department of Health said it has, in recent days, been monitoring the emergence of a new variant (B.1.1.529), of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

This variant has been identified in a number of countries in southern Africa and in Hong Kong.

Following its emergence, six countries have been added to the UK’s red list.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting tomorrow to further assess the significance of the variant.

“No cases of this variant have been reported in Europe to date, but the Minister for Health is deeply concerned," the Department said.

The Department has been in contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland and we will continue to liaise with UK authorities.

A new variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, health minister Joe Phaahla said.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out.

Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Mr Phaahla said at an online press briefing.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases.

Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travellers from South Africa, he said.

The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, said Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, who has tracked the spread of the Delta variant in the country.

The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility”, said Mr de Oliveira.

“This new variant has many, many more mutations,” including more than 30 to the spike protein that affects transmissibility, he said.

We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.

Mr de Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant.

The one piece of good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.

After a period of relatively low transmission in which South Africa recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, in the past week the daily new cases rapidly increased to more than 1,200 on Wednesday.

On Thursday they jumped to 2,465.

The first surge was in Pretoria and the surrounding Tshwane metropolitan area and appeared to be cluster outbreaks from student gatherings at universities in the area, said Mr Phaahla.

Amid the rise in cases, scientists studied the genomic sequencing and discovered the new variant.

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