Explainer: What is the new B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant?

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Across the globe, several countries are halting flights from South Africa as ministers and scientists become “deeply concerned” about a fast-spreading coronavirus variant.

The B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant has sparked worldwide concern, with Britain saying that its was considered by scientists to be the most significant one yet found, even more so than the highly-infectious delta variant.


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Here is what we know about the B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant so far.

When and where was it first discovered?

It was first detected in South Africa, with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stating on Thursday that it had confirmed 22 positive cases, with more cases being confirmed as test results come out.

It has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, the case in Hong Kong being a traveler from South Africa.

New cases have begun emerging on Friday, including in Israel.

Nearly 100 sequences of the variant have been reported, and early analysis shows it has “a large number of mutations” requiring further study, according to the World Health Organization on Friday.

How infectious is it?

Currently, the full significance of the new variant is not yet known. What is concerned health experts is the high number of spike mutations - believed to be at least 32 at the moment – which is raising concerns about its ability to evade vaccines and to spread quickly.

How many variants are there now?

There are thousands of different types, or variants, of COVID-19 circulating across the world. Delta has become the dominant variant in many countries, such as the UK, where it is considered a “variant of concern.”

Other current variants of concern include alpha (B.1.1.7), first identified in the UK but which spread to more than 50 countries, beta (B.1.351), first identified in South Africa but which has been detected in at least 20 other countries, including the UK, and gamma (P.1), first identified in Brazil but which has spread to multiple countries.

Viruses mutate all the time and most changes are inconsequential. Some even harm the virus. But others can make the disease more infectious or threatening - and these mutations tend to dominate.

Which countries have banned travel from South Africa to date?

Many, and the number is growing all the time.

Britain was one of the first to implement a ban on flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Germany and Italy on Friday later joined Britain in banning most travel from South Africa.

The Dutch government on Friday also said it will temporarily halt air traffic from Southern Africa, following the detection of a new coronavirus variant there, the ANP press agency reported, citing the country’s health minister.

The European Union’s executive also said Friday it wants to stop air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of the new variant.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”

The Czech Republic has also banned travel from South Africa and other African countries to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus variant, Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said on Friday.

Singapore and Malaysia will also restrict arrivals from seven African countries, health officials said Friday.

All non-citizens and people without permanent residency who have recent travel history to the seven countries will be barred from entering.

In both Singapore and neighboring Malaysia, the restrictions will apply to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe

What does the World Health Organization say?

The WHO said, for now, it has no comment on countries imposing travel restrictions on southern African countries linked to the variant. The WHO’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet, as with alpha, beta, delta and gamma.

Read more:

EU wants to stop flights from southern Africa over new COVID-19 variant

Britain says new COVID-19 variant is the most significant yet found

South Africa says British travel ban over new COVID-19 variant seems ‘rushed’

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