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Variant Worries South Africa

Cases are surging, but scientists don't know yet how many were caused by the new strain
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 25, 2021 1:55 PM CST
South Africa Studies Variant
A baby cries as her mother receives the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg last month.   (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

(Newser) – A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country's most populous province, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday. The coronavirus evolves as it spreads, the AP reports, and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

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South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing. "Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise," he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant. Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said. The World Health Organization's technical working group plans to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

A team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant, officials said. After a period of relatively low transmission in which the nation recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, in the past week the daily new cases rapidly increased, to more than 1,200 on Wednesday. On Thursday, the number was 2,465. About 41% of adults have been vaccinated, and the number of shots being given per day is less than 130,000, significantly below the government's target of 300,000. South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has recorded more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 89,000 deaths.

(Read more COVID variants stories.)

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