Singapore — A new Covid-19 variant was detected by scientists in South Africa on Thursday (Nov 25), noting it had a large number of mutations and is responsible for the surge in infections in the country.

Since the start of November, it was reported that the number of daily Covid-19 cases in South Africa had increased tenfold, making it the hardest-hit country in the continent.

As a result, South Africa was placed on England’s red list travel restrictions on Thursday over concerns that the variant, called B.1.1.529, maybe the worst Covid-19 variant yet identified.

With the potential to evade immunity, the variant poses “a potentially significant threat to the vaccine programme which we have to protect at all costs,” reported The Guardian.

Scientists have also noted that B.1.1.529 could be more infectious than the Delta variant and is already present in provinces throughout southern Africa.

“Unfortunately, we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” said virologist Tulio de Oliveira in a Channel News Asia report.

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It “has a very high number of mutations and unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he added.

Mr De Oliveira noted that the variant had been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong through travellers that came from South Africa.

The World Health Organization has since announced that it was “closely monitoring” the variant, with a technical meeting to be held on Friday regarding the variant’s designation.

On Friday (Nov 26), the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced new restrictions on travellers from several African countries as a result of the recently detected variant.

All travellers with recent travel history to Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will from 11:59 pm on Saturday (Nov 27) no longer be allowed entry into or transit through Singapore.

The restrictions also apply to those who have previously obtained approval for entry into Singapore if they have been in the listed countries in the past 14 days.

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Meanwhile, returning Singapore citizens and permanent residents are required to serve a 10-day stay-home notice upon arrival at dedicated facilities.

Britain has also banned flights from South Arica, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

To date, there are no cases of the variant in Singapore, said MOH.

WHO variants of interest or concern

The WHO designates variants as a “concern” or “interest”, with mutations first being categorised as variants of interests before being tagged as a concern should they pose increased risks.

To date, WHO has four variants of concern, namely the Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), Gamma (P.1) and Delta (B.1.617.2) variants.

“Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” said WHO.

On Wednesday, South Africa reported 1,200 new cases, up from 106 earlier in the month.

The country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said there are 22 cases of the B.1.1.529 variant recorded.

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Regarding mutations, B.1.1.529 has at least 10 mutations while Delta has two and Beta three.

“The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove.

She added that it would take a few weeks to understand the impact of the variant on any potential vaccines. /TISG

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ByHana O