Why are scientists worried?
It appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.
Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen.” He said it was concerning that although the variant was only being detected in low levels in parts of South Africa, “it looks like it's spreading rapidly.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.' top infectious diseases doctor, said American officials had arranged a call with their South African counterparts later on Friday to find out more details and said there was no indication the variant had yet arrived in the U.S.
What's known and not known about the variant?
Scientists know that the new variant is genetically distinct from previous variants including the beta and delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.
It will likely take weeks to sort out if the new variant is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.
Even though some of the genetic changes in the new variant appear worrying, it's still unclear if they will pose a public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn't end up spreading very far.
“We don’t know if this new variant could get a toehold in regions where delta is,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how well this variant will do where there are other variants circulating.” To date, delta is by far the most predominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s biggest public database.
Which countries have cases?
It’s unclear exactly where the new variant originated. It was first detected in South Africa, and then later identified in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
How did this new variant arise?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they cannot determine that simply by looking at the virus.
Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in someone who was infected but could then not clear the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve," in a scenario similar to how experts think the alpha variant — which was first identified in England — also emerged, by mutating in an immune-compromised person.
What is Canada doing?
Canada is moving to ban entry of foreign nationals into Canada who have travelled through southern Africa in the last 14 days. The ban impacts seven different countries in Southern Africa including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Anyone who recently arrived in Canada from the region in the last 14 days must quarantine immediately, take a COVID test and remain quarantined until they get a negative test result. To implement this, the federal government will be working with provinces and territories.
Canadians, permanent residents and those with right of entry into Canada will be tested upon arrival. They will quarantine until they get a negative test, only then will they be allowed to quarantine elsewhere in a safe and appropriate manner. They are then tested again on the 8th day until they complete their quarantine period.
The federal government is issuing a travel advisory asking all Canadians not to travel to Southern Africa for the time being.
Lastly, Canadians who return from that region and need to transit through another country will have to take a test in that transit country and remain there until they test negative before being allowed to return home. The government adds that there are currently no direct flights from Southern Africa.
Are travel restrictions justified?
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent” and would buy authorities more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious diseases expert at Imperial College London.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, thought that the early detection of the new variant could mean restrictions taken now would have a bigger impact than when the delta variant first emerged
“With delta, it took many, many weeks into India’s terrible wave before it became clear what was going on and delta had already seeded itself in many places in the world and it was too late to do anything about it,” he said. “We may be at an earlier point with this new variant so there may still be time to do something about it.”
In a news conference Friday, South African officials called the swift travel bans “unjustified” and wanted to reassure South Africans and the global community at large that the data is still new and being evaluated by medical experts.
“This uncertainty is creating panic and unfortunately resulting in many countries taking precautionary, temporary steps by banning travel to South Africa and our region. This is a blow to our economy and will be felt most in our province, as our tourism and hospitality sector is highly reliant on international travellers over this peak season to sustain itself and create jobs,” South Africa’s Premier Alan Winde said in a statement released Friday.
The WHO is also cautioning countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions, urging them to take a “risk-based and scientific approach.”
-The Associated Press, Toronto Star