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  • Australian health authorities have put South Africa on its watch-list as a new strain of COVID-19 is being investigated
  • The new strain, B.1.1529, was reportedly first detected in Botswana before it spread to South Africa and Hong Kong
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to convene to determine if this new variety is cause for worry or interest
  • Health Minister Greg Hunt says no cases of the new strain has been found in Australia, but the country will not hesitate to close its borders to South Africa
  • Britain is taking no chances and closed its borders to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini

Australia is keeping a close eye on South Africa, where a new strain of COVID-19 has been found, but the borders will stay open for now.

The new strain, B.1.1529, was reportedly first detected in Botswana before it spread to South Africa and Hong Kong.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to convene to determine if this new variety is cause for worry or interest. The variation is anticipated to be designated ‘Nu’ if it is recognised by the WHO.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases has confirmed there are now 22 cases linked to the strain, however positive tests are “increasing quickly” in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo.

Notably, there is a significant number of mutations, that could be double the number of mutations that are seen in the Delta variant, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told reporters.

Scientists are currently attempting to ascertain if this version is more transmissible than Delta; nonetheless, the more than 30 alterations to the spike protein are certain.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said no cases of the new strain has been found in Australia, but the country will not hesitate to close its borders to South Africa.

“If the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate. That’s what we’ve done as a country, whether it’s been closing borders, whether it’s been ensuring that there’s quarantine,” he said on Friday morning.

People returning from South Africa have been passing through the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, with the most recent repatriation flight arriving around two weeks ago.

“At this point in time, there’s very little traffic directly between South Africa and Australia. We also happen to be very, very highly vaccinated now,” Mr Hunt said.

“As I mentioned, 92.1 per cent of the 16 plus population [recieving their first vaccine dose]… that’s a very different position from when the Delta variant emerged in India. But we will continue to be flexible and when tough decisions need to be made, we haven’t shied away in the past and we won’t shy away in the future.”

Britain was taking no chances and has already closed its borders to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said the new variant had an “unprecedented” number of mutations in the spike protein and was driving a recent rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa.

“The government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is, therefore, prudent,” he said

“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.”

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