A new variant of COVID-19 with a huge number of mutations is spreading rapidly across southern Africa, leading governments to begin closing their borders to travelers from that region.
The variant, officially known as B.1.1.529, or referred to as the “nu variant,” has dozens of mutations, raising fears among scientists that it could be more transmissible than the delta variant, which caused the current spike in cases in Europe and the U.S. that are once again threatening to overwhelm health systems.
The variant, first spotted in Botswana on Nov. 11, has now become the dominant variant in South Africa, the nation with the highest incidence rate of COVID-19 in Africa.
“B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick!y In less than two weeks, [it] now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Centre of Epidemic Response and Innovation, tweeted on Thursday.
On Friday morning, the first confirmed incidence of the new variant in Europe was confirmed in a young, unvaccinated woman in Belgium, who had recently returned from Egypt via Turkey. The woman had no direct links to any country in southern Africa.
The rapid spread of the new variant and the extremely high number of mutations—which also make it more likely to be able to avoid the protections afforded by vaccines—have led several governments to impose travel restrictions on people coming from southern African countries.
The U.K. announced on Thursday night that it has suspended flights from six African countries—South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe—and starting Friday, non-U.K. and Irish residents will be banned from entering England if they have been in any of the the six countries in the past 10 days. UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs on Friday that while the U.K. was acting cautiously, no cases of the new variant had been detected.
Within hours, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Israel—which has already identified three cases of the variant—had also tightened restrictions on travelers coming from southern Africa.
The EU is also set to close its borders. “The EU Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Friday morning.
South Africa has criticized the U.K.’s decision. “It seems to have been rushed, as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations said in a statement posted on its website.
The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting on Friday morning where it will discuss the risks posed by the new variant and decide if it should be classified as a variant of interest or concern. If that does happen, the WHO will give it a Greek name, likely “nu,” as that is the next available free letter in the naming system the WHO announced for COVID-19 variants earlier this year.
The U.S. government or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have yet to comment on the threat posed by the new variant.
Virologists have been warning about the dangers posted by the variant for the last week as a result of the “horrific” number of mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus responsible for identifying and invading cells.
The new variant was first spotted by Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, who noted that the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern.”
The reason scientists are so concerned about the new variant is not just because of the number of mutations, but also because it has mutations that have been seen in other variants that are associated with both higher transmissibility and immune escape.
Of particular concern is the fact that the new variant has two mutations to a part of the virus called the furin cleavage site. It was a mutation at this site that caused the delta variant to spread like wildfire, and the new variant marks the first time virologists have observed two mutations to this site.
One analysis from a scientist who models how diseases spread suggests the new variant could have a 500% viral competitive advantage over the original strain of COVID-19. The delta variant, which is the current dominant strain globally, had a 70% advantage.
In South Africa, the cases identified by virologists have been clustered in the Gauteng province, one of the nation’s wealthiest and most economically vibrant regions. In one area where the new variant has become dominant, positivity rates have shot up from 1% to 30% in the space of just two weeks.