UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid advised the nation’s Health Security Agency was monitoring the evolving situation in South Africa but said more data was needed before extra steps were considered.
Along with South Africa – Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and the original source of the first cases, Botswana – will be restricted from travelling to the UK.
“From noon tomorrow, six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK traveller must quarantine,” he tweeted hours after the World Health Organisation briefly spoke about the strain.
British scientists were “deeply concerned” about the emergence of the strain.
Mr Javid said the variant’s high number of mutations means it could “perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta (strain)”.
“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.”
There are no reported cases in the UK. A total of 59 infections have been reported in South Africa and Botswana with one case in hotel quarantine in Hong Kong.
Flights into the United Kingdom from six African countries have been temporarily suspended after the discovery of the new coronavirus strain. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was briefed by Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly and Scientific and Technical Advisory Group Professor Brendan Murphy on Friday but will not follow the steps of the UK in banning flights from Africa at this stage.
“They are gathering information and the information is that it has the potential to be a new variant but the world is learning and looking at that information,” he said in a press conference on Friday morning.
“The advice at the moment is to engaged with the international community and of course, we have the fact that it’s double vaccinated Australians returning, other relevant people are subject to current border restrictions and there is no change to those at this point in time.”
He added the government was “well prepared” and “able to act quickly” on any new advice like they did when the Delta variant emerged in India in December 2020.
Health Minister Hunt provides update on ‘potentially emerging’ COVID-19 variant
There have been minimal flights between South Africa and Australia.
Mr Hunt said “to the best of his knowledge” there has been no emergence of the South Africa strain in Australia.
The World Health Organisation will hold a special meeting on Friday to discuss what scientists have discovered so far in terms of the properties of the strain, such as whether it could evade the body’s immune response triggered by vaccines and the severity of the variant compared to previous ones.
The variant currently known as B.1.1.529 has been detected in the South African provinces of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Gauteng.
Researchers have identified at least 30 changes to the spike protein of B.1.1.529 following genome sequencing results in Botswana, where the strain reportedly originated from.
The variant currently known as B.1.1.529  is spreading in the South African provinces of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Gauteng. Picture: Getty
South African virologist Tulio de Oliveira and his team found the variant was responsible for all of 77 of the virus samples collected from Gauteng collected over an eight day period between November 12 to 20.
Hundreds more samples are currently going through analysis. 
A major challenge for South Africa is that only 28 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated.
WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, said the mutations can impact how the virus behaves.
“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations,” she said during a Q&A livestream.
Executive Director of WHO’s emergencies programs warned there should not be a “knee-jerk reaction” until more is known about the variant.
If WHO deem the strain a “major variant” it will be given the alphabetical signal of Nu.
Concerns grow over Europe’s COVID crisis
The concern about the latest variant comes as Europe battles its way through a fourth wave with countries such as Germany, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Ireland and the Czech Republic.
WHO warned the number of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe to hit 2.2 million by spring next year if more people do not get vaccinated heading into the winter period.
The three main factors driving high transmission rates across large cities and communities: the transmissibility of the Delta variant, an easing of safety measures across dozens of nations seeing coronavirus as no longer an “emergency threat” and low levels of vaccination.

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