South Africa is suffering from a strong second wave of Covid-19 caused by a new strain of the disease similar to the UK variant that is feared to be more contagious and leading to an increase in infections among young people.
Cases in South Africa have jumped from less than 3,000 a day in early December to more than 9,500 a day on Tuesday, apparently due to a variant called 501.V2 that has now also been discovered in the UK.
In South Africa, more than 8,500 people are currently hospitalized with Covid-19, beating the previous high of 8,300 in August.
Five countries, including the UK, Germany and Switzerland, have banned flights from South Africa to stop the spread of the disease, which is believed to affect young people more than other variants.
The UK and South Africa are both suffering from a coronavirus resurgence which they attribute to newly identified mutations in the disease
Like the British mutant strain, the South African mutant strain "looks more transmissible" according to Public Health England.
South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the new strain was identified by genome scientists in South Africa.
"The evidence gathered therefore strongly suggests that the current second wave we are witnessing is being driven by this new variant," added Mkhize.
South African health officials said the new variant appeared to have spread faster than the previous iteration, but it was too early to determine its severity and see if current vaccines would work against it.
The mutation means the country may see "a lot more cases" in the new wave than it did when the disease first spike, Abdool Karim said.
It is believed that up to 80 to 90 percent of newly diagnosed cases in South Africa are of the new type.
Doctors have found that more patients are younger and not always have other conditions that make the virus worse, but still have more severe forms of Covid-19.
However, young people's behavior has also been blamed for asking parents to take responsibility for their children's compliance with the rules, according to the South African media.
"In the UK they also identified a new variant … there are some similarities between the two lines … there are also a similar number of mutations," said Prof. Tulio de Oliviera, member of the government's Genomics Consortium.
Matt Hancock said today that the new variant in the UK was found in contacts of people who had recently traveled from South Africa.
"Thanks to the impressive genomic capabilities of South Africans, we have discovered two cases of yet another new variant of the coronavirus here in the UK," he said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday it had contacted the South African researchers who had identified the new variant.
"We are working with them in our working group on the development of the SARS-CoV-2 virus," said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, using the full name for the virus.
"They are growing the virus in the country and working with researchers to see changes in the behavior of the virus itself in relation to transmission."
A nurse conducts a coronavirus test in Richmond, Johannesburg last Friday, with cases and deaths increasing in South Africa
Passengers wait in line at a Johannesburg airport on Monday as South Africa, like the UK, is isolated from coronavirus-related travel bans
Like Britain, South Africa has isolated itself through a series of travel bans following the discovery of the new tribe.
Germany and Switzerland are among the countries that have imposed the same restrictions on South Africa in recent days as the UK.
Aviation experts said they expected more airlines and countries to follow suit, at least until more was known.
South Africa is more affected by the coronavirus than other countries on the continent. As of Tuesday, there had been 940,212 cases and 25,246 deaths.
After a July peak where cases regularly spiked more than 10,000 a day, the numbers had dropped to 1,500 a day by mid-November.
But they've since come back, and deaths have also risen from a typical 93 per day a month ago to 226 per day.
The 339 new deaths on Tuesday were the highest one-day jump since the end of the first wave.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has said there won't be a hard lockdown this time, but there will be early closings for pubs and bars and shortened hours for alcohol sales.
Ramaphosa has also ordered popular beaches to be closed during the festive season, which falls in the southern hemisphere summer.
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