Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has described the travel ban that the United Kingdom has imposed on South Africa as unfortunate. The UK’s move follows the detection of a new variant of the coronavirus in South Africa.

Mkhize says Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s utterance that the potentially more infectious variant of the virus has spread to Britain is unfounded.

UK restricts South Africa travel amid new COVID variant strain:

The Minister says there is evidence that the UK variant developed earlier than the South African one. He insists that more scientific evidence is required before a ban is imposed.

Frustrated South Africa travel operators say the ban has dashed hopes of reviving the local tourism industry.

Dr Zweli Mkhize lambastes comments made by the Secretary for Health in the United Kingdom:

What is the new variant?

The new variant, referred to as 501.V2, was discovered by a network of scientists around South Africa who have been tracking the genetics of the SARS-COV-2 virus. The variant appears to be focused in the south and southeast regions of the country and has been dominating findings from samples collected since October, they say.

Explainer on what is the new COVID-19 variant:

First identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, along South Africa’s east coast, it spread rapidly to other districts in the Eastern Cape, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provinces.

Scientists say the variant is different from others circulating in South Africa because it has multiple mutations in the important “spike” protein that the virus uses to infect human cells. It has also been associated with a higher viral load, meaning a higher concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission.

Between 80% and 90% of new cases in the country are carrying the mutant variant, according to health authorities.

Africa CDC to investigate new variant of coronavirus:

Are the concerns justified?

All viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, changeover time, and there have been hundreds of variations of this virus identified worldwide. South African scientists say there is no clear evidence at this stage that this variant is associated with more severe disease or worse outcomes. However, it does appear to spread faster than previous iterations.

“What has happened with the sheer number of infections growing very fast is that’s overwhelmed really fast the healthcare system,” said Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KZN Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), who helped conduct genome sequencing on South Africa’s mutant variant. “And when that happens, we have a big spike of increased mortality.”

The positivity rate, or the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that are actually positive, stood at 26% as of 23 December, around double the average rate of infection before December, when the virus showed signs of waning.

In the first wave of infections, which peaked during the winter months between June and July, the positivity rate reached as high as 27%.

“The rate of spread is much faster than the first wave and we will surpass the peak of the first wave in the coming days, “Mkhize said on Wednesday.

Is it different to the UK variant?

The variants reported by South Africa and the UK share a common change in the spike protein that may make them more infectious. But they are different variants, and sequence analysis revealed that they originated separately, the World Health Organisation said.

Dr Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said, “The ‘South African’ variant is distinct from the UK variant, but both contain an unusually high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

Will COVID-19 vaccines protect against this variant?

South African authorities say it is too early to say whether the vaccines currently being deployed in Britain and the United States, or other COVID-19 shots in development, will protect against the new variant. Vaccine developers including AstraZeneca, BioNTech and Moderna Inc said this week that they expect their shots to still work against the UK variant.  – Additional reporting by Reuters.