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New virus variant driving spike in South Africa

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Denis farrell/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

South Africa

A new variant of the coronavirus is driving a surge in cases in South Africa, the health minister said.

According to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy, the new variant, is dominant among new confirmed infections, with higher numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections on the continent.

South African scientists are studying if the vaccines against COVID-19 will also offer protection against the new strain.

The new strain, different from the one in Britain, appears to be more infectious than the original virus.

"So literally all we know is that we have these mutations. We haven't done any functional studies, we haven't done any kind of cohort studies to look really at how this variant might be affecting disease severity, how it might be affecting transmissibility or even virulence of the virus," Jinal Bhiman at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said.

"The concern is that if you have escape mutations, which these two look like they are, those antibodies won't be effective. If those antibodies, the old antibodies from people who were previously infected and the antibodies from people who have been vaccinated, are still good, then there is no concern."

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said Monday the new variant is not out of control.

"In the past few days, there have been reports of new variants in South Africa and the United Kingdom,” he said. “Viruses mutate over time; that's natural and expected.

"The UK has reported that this new variant transmits more easily, but there is no evidence so far that it is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality," he said.

Experts have warned South Africa may see many more cases during the new wave than it experienced in the first wave of the virus.

In response to the resurgence, the government has introduced tougher lockdown restrictions, including limited days and hours for the trade of alcohol and the closure of beaches in hotspot areas.

South Africa currently has more than 8,500 people hospitalised with COVID-19, surpassing the previous 8,300 recorded in August.

So far a total of 912,477 virus cases have been recorded in the country, including 24,539 deaths.

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