South Africa identifies new coronavirus strain causing surge in cases


Adds details, WHO, scientist quotes

JOHANNESBURG, Dec 18 (Reuters) - South Africa has identified a new variant of the coronavirus that is driving a second wave of infections, the health minister said on Friday, days after Britain said it had also found a new variant of the virus boosting cases.

"We have convened this public briefing today to announce that a variant of the SARS-COV-2 Virus - currently termed 501.V2 Variant - has been identified by our genomics scientists here in South Africa," Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize tweeted.

"The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant," Mkhize added.

South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections in Africa, approaching the 900,000 mark, with over 20,000 related deaths. A resurgence in cases saw the government tighten restrictions on society this week.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.

The global body added there was no indication there were changes in the way the new strain of the virus was behaving.

"We are working with them with our SARS-COV-2 Virus evolution working group. They are growing the virus in the country and they're working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission," WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told a news conference in Geneva.

South African health authorities said the new variant seemed to spread faster than the previous iteration, but that it was too early to tell its severity and whether current vaccines would work against it.

"In the UK they have also identified a new variant ... there are quite a few similarities between the two lineages ... there are also a similar number of mutations" said Prof Tulio de Oliviera, a member of government's genomics consortium in a televised briefing.

(Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana and Promit Mukherjee; additional reporting by Silke Koltrowitz in Geneva; editing by Frances Kerry and Mark Potter)

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