New COVID-19 variant is ‘huge international concern,’ UK health secretary says

A worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has been detected in South Africa is causing concern among health officials worldwide. 

The U.K.‘s health security agency has classified B.1.1.529 as a new variant under investigation, and the country has identified the potential threat of the new variant and alerted international partners. 

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While there are currently no detected cases of the variant in the U.K., the country’s health secretary told Parliament on Friday that the new COVID-19 variant was "of huge international concern" and that it was "highly likely" that it has spread to countries beyond where it has been detected.

"The variant has an unusually large number of mutations," the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid told the House of Commons. "We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health."

Javid noted the situation remains "fast-moving" and with "a high degree of uncertainty," but said early indications show this variant "may be more transmissible than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less affective against it." 

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Cases of B.1.1.529 have been identified in South Africa and in Botswana, and by noon on Nov. 26, six countries in southern Africa were added to the U.K.’s red list, meaning flights were temporarily banned, and travelers returning from those countries must quarantine.

European Union nations on Friday agreed to impose a ban on travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of the new coronavirus variant.

The 27 nations acted within hours upon the advise of the EU executive which said all needed to be extra cautious in dealing with the variant until it became clear how bad of a threat it would be, the EU presidency said in a statement.

The EU presidency, currently held by Slovenia, also called on all member states "to test and quarantine all incoming passengers."

Japan also announced travel restrictions for South Africa and neighboring countries. 

RELATED: South African scientists identify new COVID-19 variant

But South Africa’s minister of health spoke against the travel bans in a news conference on Friday, calling the actions a "knee-jerk reaction."

Dr. Joe Phaahla said such reactions are "not an answer."

If a country, through its scientific surveillance, is able to identify a particular variant, it is the wrong approach to then ascribe that particular variant to that particular country," Phaahla said.

Phaahla said many European countries imposing these restrictions have much higher daily infection rates than South Africa. Germany has seen record daily case numbers in recent days and on Thursday surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19."It really doesn’t look scientific in any way. So that’s why we insist that kind of reaction is quite knee jerk and panic and actually almost wanting to put the blame on other countries rather than work together as guided by the World Health Organization," Phaahla said.

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The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed and strongly discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have "not yielded a meaningful outcome."

Advisers to the World Health Organization were holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about the worrying new variant, though a top expert says its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks.

The World Health Organization said it has yet to determine if the B.1.1.529 variant should be designated a variant of "interest" or of "concern."

RELATED: EU orders travel ban on South Africa over omicron COVID-19 variant

"We don't know very much about this, yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves," said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, in a social-media chat Thursday.

Fewer than 100 full genome sequences of the variant are so far available.

"It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines, for example," Van Kerkhove continued.

What is the B.1.1.529 variant?

The variant was first identified in Botswana earlier this month, but may have contributed to a jump in cases in South Africa.

RELATED: Omicron variant: What to know about the new COVID-19 strain

As of Friday, the B.1.1.529 variant has been found in Botswana, Hong Kong and South Africa.

The new variant is considered the most significant one yet and scientists are working to see if it renders vaccines less effective. 

The variant has a high number of spike mutations that could affect transmissibility and immune response, health officials, including Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said.

There are anecdotal reports of cases in vaccinated people and reinfections, but health officials said more investigation is needed, Nature reported.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. Jordan Smith, the Associated Press and FOX News contributed.