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New COVID Variant Is a 'Big Jump in Evolution'

EU countries rush to restrict travel from southern Africa
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 26, 2021 5:17 AM CST
Updated Nov 26, 2021 6:53 AM CST
New COVID Variant Is a 'Big Jump in Evolution'
People wearing masks on an escalator at a shopping mall in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021.   (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

(Newser) – Almost two years after the first cases were detected in Wuhan, China, the fight against the coronavirus continues—and authorities are worried that a new variant detected in South Africa could be a major setback. The variant, currently known as B.1.1.529, has mutations that could make it more infectious and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, scientists say. CNBC reports that the World Health Organization has scheduled a meeting on the variant for Friday. It if is declared a variant of interest or a variant of concern, it will be assigned a Greek letter name. The "Mu" variant first detected in Colombia was designated a variant of interest in August, making "Nu" the next letter in line. More:

  • Why scientists are worried. While many COVID variants die out, the latest one has an unusually high number of mutations and believed to be behind a steep rise in infections in South Africa, the AP reports. Joe Phaahla, the country's health minister, said Thursday that there has been an "exponential" rise in cases over the last four or five days. Cases have also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, and Israel.

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  • "A big jump in evolution." The variant was detected after scientists investigated a surge in infections in the Johannesburg area, the New York Times reports. "This variant did surprise us—it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta," said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
  • New travel restrictions. European countries quickly imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa as news of the variant emerged, the BBC reports. The UK has banned flights from six countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini.
  • "The most worrying we've seen." Dr Susan Hopkins, a top medical adviser to the British government, described the variant as "the most worrying we've seen" due to high transmission levels, per the Guardian. South African officials are "saying that their transmission rates, the R value that they have in Gauteng around where this was first found, is now 2, which is really quite high and we’ve not seen levels of transmission like that since right back at the beginning of the pandemic, because of all of the mitigations and steps we’ve taken," Hopkins said.

  • Stock markets sink. The Financial Times reports that stock markets in Europe and Asia dropped sharply Friday, with airline stocks among the hardest hit. Oil prices are also down and the Dow Jones is set to open down 800 points.
  • Israel "close to an emergency situation." In Israel, where a case of the new variant was found in a traveler arriving from Malawi, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ordered a review of the country's COVID situation, the Guardian reports. "We are close to an emergency situation," Bennett said. "We must act strongly and quickly." The Hong Kong government said two cases of the variant were detected in travelers in hotel quarantine. One infected person was across the hall from the other.
(Read more COVID variants stories.)

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