The variant is very different to the others that have emerged so far. Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan, may not be as effective.
The new variant is yet to be given a more memorable name, like Delta or Beta, and right now is known as B.1.1.529. The WHO is expected to name it on Friday.
The WHO says so far fewer than 100 sample sequences have been reported. Cases have mainly been confirmed in South Africa, but have also been detected in Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.
The UK’s health minister, Sajid Javid, said on Friday that it is “highly likely ” to have spread to other countries.
Only about 24% of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, which could see a rapid spread of cases there, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), told the BBC on Friday.
In Hong Kong, the variant spread during hotel quarantine between a person who had arrived from South Africa and another hotel guest who tested positive a few days later, the Department of Health revealed. Both were fully vaccinated.
Israel’s PM Naftali Bennett said on Friday it is “on the verge of a state of emergency” regarding the new variant, and that he would “act fast, strong and now”.
One case was detected in a person who returned from Malawi, according to Israeli media reports quoting the country’s health ministry. Another two suspected infections were yet to be confirmed with test results. All three are said to have been fully vaccinated.
The WHO has warned against countries hastily imposing travel restrictions, saying they should look to a “risk-based and scientific approach.”
Nevertheless, the UK, Japan and the Netherlands have halted flights from these southern African nations:
Singapore, Italy and Israel have placed all of those nations, plus Mozambique, on their red lists.
The Head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is proposing the whole of the EU put on the “emergency brake” and stop flights from the region.
The Czech Republic will ban anyone has has spent more than 12 hours in those nations from entering as of Saturday.
Germany, which is currently going through a fourth wave of infections because of the Delta variant, will allow only Germans to fly into Germany from South Africa as of Friday night, a health ministry source quoted by Reuters news agency said. Even if travellers are fully vaccinated, they will still have to spend 14 days in quarantine.
South Africa’s foreign ministry criticised the UK – which was one of the first nations to impose a flight ban – for what it called the “rushed decision”.
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the WHO is yet to advise on the next steps,” it said in a statement.
The head of the agency leading Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic says imposing restrictions such as banning flights is unlikely to reduce the spread of the new variant.
“The restrictions imposed always make it difficult to co-ordinate a response,” Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told BBC Newsday.
“It doesn’t help… it has never helped reduce the spread of any variant across the world,” he said.