A new variant of the coronavirus, which appears to be more transmissible, has been discovered in South Africa and is being blamed for a further increase in COVID-19 cases there.
Although it appeared independently, it has a mutation similar to new variant discovered in the UK that scientists say is more transmissible, leading many nations to Britain’s travel ban.
South Africa’s health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said the new variant appears to be linked to higher rates of serious illness in young people and that scientists are working to learn more about it.
Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that have stopped flights to and from South Africa.
Haley Ott of CBS News 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 variant. A transcript of the interview below has been edited for clarity.
Haley Ott: We are hearing reports of new variants of the coronavirus emerging in countries around the world. What is happening in South Africa?
Professor Túlio de Oliveira: We have a new variant that is spreading very quickly and that did (things) similar to what the London variant did – that is, to dominate. What it means – to dominate – is to displace all the others, like 20, 30 different strains, that we had.
It is very important to note that the variations between South Africa and the United Kingdom are very different. They do not have a common origin, but they do have some similarities. Both have a key mutation in the peak glycoprotein that allows the peak protein to most likely bind better to cells and enter the body. We both, in South Africa and the United Kingdom, believe that this strain is much more transmissible than the previous strain. And we are trying to study this as quickly and completely as possible.
Is there any indication that these new variants have worse results in terms of disease severity in South Africa or the United Kingdom?
At the moment, we believe, both in 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. However, if it is spreading much faster, we end up with a lot more people, just by the number, sick.
As more information emerges about these new variants and, in different countries, as governments announce their plans to respond, I think people may be a little confused about how intense their reaction to this should be. Some people are saying that viruses mutate all the time, this is not uncommon. But we are also hearing that it is much more transmissible. How concerned should people be with these new variants?
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 were not concerned with the previous mutations before because they did not seem to drastically affect the biological properties of the virus. And that is why we are most concerned, when two independent variants appear to be spreading faster in two areas of the world. We would not be surprised if other countries also find strains those that appear to be transmitting better due to mutations in the spike protein.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you discovered this new strain in South Africa?
We increased genomic surveillance in the area of South Africa that was receiving the first wave of the second wave, because we were quite surprised. Because in the South African summer, we don’t expect a wave and a big second wave to start in the summer. And then, when we looked at it, we saw that this strain seemed to be displacing the others, but also spreading very fast down the coast.
What do you think people should understand about what is going on here?
We almost have to take an approach similar to that of many countries in South Asia, Asia and Oceania that tried to stop transmission and tried to stop transmission when it started, reacting strongly to a small number of cases. So, what happened in South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States or Brazil, is that we have left this virus circulating at a relatively low or high level and trying to learn to live with the virus. But perhaps the virus is beginning to trick us.
We are very concerned, not only for South Africa, but also for the rest of Africa. Our health system has been affected by 20 years of HIV and TB epidemics, so we are very concerned that although Africa may have escaped the first wave quite successfully, if it does not become more stringent and try to control this virus, we may not escape this second wave as successfully as we did in the first.