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New COVID variant considered 'worse than' Delta is 'spreading rapidly' in South Africa and worrying health experts across the globe

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IMAGE POINT FR/NIH/NIAID/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A new COVID-19 variant recently identified in South Africa is causing concern from public health experts across the globe due to its high number of mutations and increased transmissibility among young people. Some are even warning the new strain could prove to be more dangerous than the Delta variant.

What are the details?

It's unclear where exactly the new strain, formerly known as B.1.1.529, initially arose but it was first detected in South Africa and has since been detected among South African travelers in neighboring Botswana as well as Hong Kong, the Associated Press reported. On Friday, Israel also said it had detected cases.

South Africa's minister of health, Joe Phaahla, announced this week that the variant has been linked to a rapid increase in the number of cases in the country's Gauteng province over the last few days.

"Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise," Phaahla said, according to Time. The magazine noted that South African scientists are presently working to determine the percentage of new cases that were caused by the new variant, but they suspect it to be high.

Over the past several weeks, COVID-19 transmission in the country had settled to a relatively low rate at just over 200 new confirmed cases per day. But in the past week, the daily new cases suddenly shot up to more than 1,200. And then on Thursday, the number of new cases skyrocketed to 2,465.

One of the most worrying elements about the new variant is its "constellation" of more than 30 new mutations, said Tulio de Oliveira of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa.

"We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast," de Oliveira added. "We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks."

"[The] very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility," he explained.

What has been the international reaction?

News of the new variant has caught the attention of scientists and public health officials around the world.

The British government on Thursday announced that it would be banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective Friday. Other European countries, such as the Netherlands, have followed suit.

Video surfaced on social media Friday appearing to show travelers from South Africa being instructed not to exit their plane after landing in Amsterdam.

The U.K.'s health secretary, Sajid Javid, told reporters there were concerns that the new variant "may be more transmissible" than the Delta strain and that current vaccines "may be less effective" against it, according to Time.

On Friday, Israel was reportedly on "the threshold of an emergency situation" over the new variant.

One scientist, Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial College in the U.K., reportedly described the variant's combination of mutations as "horrific" and warned it had the potential to be "worse than nearly anything else," including the dominant Delta strain.

According to the AP, another U.K. scientist, Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as "spreading rapidly" and as "the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen."

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