The new Covid variant of major concern, which was first spotted in Botswana, has now been identified in Israel and Hong Kong, with experts fearing its mutations may allow it to spread quickly, evading existing Covid-19 immunity.
Variant B.1.1.529, which is yet to be given a name from the Greek alphabet like previous strains have, has spread rapidly across southern Africa since it was first identified in Botswana in early November. The strain, which is known to have multiple mutations of concern, already accounts for 90% of Covid-19 cases in the South African province of Gauteng - the highveld state home to major cities Pretoria and Johannesburg.
The spread of the variant across southern Africa has prompted a number of nations, including the UK and Israel, as well as countries in the European bloc, to declare flight bans from affected nations. The UK has banned flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.
On Friday, the Israeli health ministry announced that the highly mutated variant had been detected in the country. The infection was identified in an Israeli who had returned from Malawi. The ministry said it was monitoring two other people suspected of being infected.
Meanwhile, two cases have been confirmed in the Asian financial hub of Hong Kong. Genome sequencing results from a Covid-19 patient who arrived in the city from South Africa confirmed on Thursday that the infection was the new variant from southern Africa.
The patient was also accused of wearing a "selfish" valve-style face mask which allowed the infection to pass to another guest at the quarantine hotel last week. Both individuals had been fully vaccinated.
The World Health Organization has admitted that little is known about the variant, with fewer than 100 full genomic sequences available for review. Experts have noted "a large number of mutations," raising fears about the impact on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccinations.