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New COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa sparks travel bans and an anxious wait for data

COVID variant found in South Africa sparks fear
Fears new COVID variant detected in South Africa could be worst yet 02:09

Johannesburg — A potentially dangerous new strain of the coronavirus is alarming scientists around the world and prompting governments to ban travelers from southern African nations. The variant was first detected in South Africa, where scientists were quick to flag it to the global health community.

As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, there's serious concern among experts that the new strain could set back the fight against the pandemic. 

South African officials say the variant, which has more mutations than previously detected strains that have emerged around the world, marks a huge "jump in the evolution" of the virus since the global health crisis began two years ago.

The concern is that it could be more transmissible and or more resistant to the current vaccine formulas, according to public health expert Professor Salim Abdool Karim.

"If this variant is as, or more transmissible than the Delta variant, it will be very difficult to anticipate it, to do anything different to what we have seen, which is that it would grow and spread across the world," he told CBS News.

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South African scientists have been working around the clock this week to determine just how bad the new variant, which thus far is being referred to only as B.1.1.529, really is. Lab results are still a few weeks away.

But despite the World Health Organization's call for "a risk-based and scientific approach" as it urged nations not to adopt travel restrictions yet, some countries decided not to wait for the detailed scientific analysis. Britain, France and Israel have cancelled direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.
So far fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, largely among young people in South Africa, who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.

South Africa calls British travel ban over new COVID-19 variant 'rushed'
A passenger is seen wearing a face mask in a taxi in Soweto, South Africa, on November 26, 2021, after the announcement of British and French bans on flights from the country because of the detection of a new COVID-19 variant there. SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

Botswana and Hong Kong also confirmed cases in travelers who had recently returned from South Africa, and on Friday, Israel said three people who had also just returned from abroad were infected with the strain. One of those patients came in from Malawi, but Israeli officials didn't specify where the other two had flown in from. All three had been placed under mandatory isolation on Friday.
Health officials in South Africa said the reaction by other countries was premature, given how little was understood yet about the new strain. Karim noted that it was only detected thanks to South Africa's excellent scientific surveillance of COVID-19 cases, which specifically hunts for new variants. Few other nations have such a robust genomic sequencing program to find the strains.

"It is true that other countries that may not have the same level of diligence," he told CBS News, which means other nations, "may well have new variants like either this one or others. They just don't know about it."

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Since the first coronavirus vaccines became available more than a year ago, the WHO and public health experts around the world have warned that if doses aren't shared with developing nations, even well-vaccinated countries will be at risk as new, potentially more dangerous variants are given the space — and unprotected human hosts — they need to evolve.

With less than 7% of the African continent's total population vaccinated to date, there has been mounting pressure on pharmaceutical companies and the wealthiest countries to redress the huge imbalance in vaccine distribution.

Pfizer's partner BioNTech said on Friday that it was already studying the efficacy of the companies' COVID vaccine formula against the new strain.

"We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest," a BioNTech spokesperson told the French news agency AFP. "These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally."

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