A new variant of coronavirus, which appears to be more transmissible, has been discovered in South Africa and is blamed for a new increase in COVID-19 cases there.
Although it originated independently, it has a similar mutation to new variant discovered in the UK as researchers say is more transferable, which encourages many nations to ban travel from the UK.
South Africa’s health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said the new variant appeared to be linked to higher rates of serious illness in younger people and that researchers were working to learn more about it.
Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among countries that have stopped flights to and from South Africa.
On Wednesday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said two cases of a new variant of coronavirus from South Africa in the UK had been detected. He announced that anyone who had been in South Africa during the last two weeks should be quarantined immediately.
“This new variant is very worrying because it is even more transmissible and it appears to have mutated longer than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK,” Hancock said.
CBS News’ Haley Ott spoke with Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, who is part of the team that discovered the new South African variant. He said on Wednesday that he was working closely with the British government and that it was the new South African variant that was discovered in Britain. A transcript of the interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Haley Ott: We hear reports of new strains of coronavirus occurring in countries around the world. What is happening in South Africa?
Professor Tulio de Oliveira: We have a new variant that has spread very quickly, and which has done similar (things) to what the variant in London has done – that is, to dominate. What that means – dominate – is to displace all the others, like 20, 30 different genera that we had.
It is very important to note that the variants between South Africa and the United Kingdom are very different. They do not have a common origin, but they do have a few similarities. Both have a key mutation in the tip glycoprotein that allows the spike protein to likely bind better to the cells and enter the body. We both, in South Africa and the UK, believe that this genus is much more transmissible than the previous genus. And we try to investigate it as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
Is there any indication that these new variants have poorer results in terms of disease severity in South Africa or in the UK?
At present, we believe, in both South Africa and the United Kingdom, that the severity of the disease is similar. But again, it is still an open question. But we have no reason to believe that the severity of the disease is different. But if it spreads much faster, we end up with a lot more people, just by the large number, sick.
As more information comes out about these new variants, and in different countries, when governments announce their plans to respond, I think people might be a little confused about how intense their reaction should be to this. Some people say that viruses mutate all the time, this is not unusual. But we also hear that it is much more transferable. How worried should people be about these new varieties?
Yes, viruses mutate all the time. And SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus] had a kind of fixed linear mutation rate of about two mutations per month. We have not been concerned before about the previous mutations because they did not appear to drastically affect the biological properties of the virus. And that’s why we’re becoming more concerned when two independent varieties appear to be spreading faster in two areas of the world. We would not be surprised if other countries also find tribes which appears to transmit better due to mutations in the spike protein.
Can you tell me a little about how you discovered this new genus in South Africa?
We increased the genomic surveillance in the area of South Africa that got the first wave of the second wave because we were quite surprised. For in the South African summer we do not expect an increase and a big second wave to start in the summer. And when we examined it, we saw that this genus seemed to displace the others, but also spread very rapidly over the coast.
What do you think people should understand about what is happening here?
We have to almost take an approach similar to many of the South Asian and Asian and Oceanic countries that tried to stop transmission and tried to stop transmission when it started, and reacted very strongly to a small number of cases. So what happened in South Africa, the UK, the US or Brazil is that we have let this virus circulate at a relatively low or high level and tried to learn to live with the virus. But maybe the virus is starting to overwhelm us.
We are quite concerned, not only for South Africa, but also for the rest of Africa. Our health care system has been affected by 20 years of HIV and tuberculosis epidemics, so we are quite concerned that while Africa may have escaped the first wave quite successfully if it does not become stricter and try to control this virus, this second wave may not escape just as successful as we did in the first.