JOHANNESBURG - South African scientists are scrambling to determine how quickly a newly discovered variant of the coronavirus can spread and if it is resistant to vaccines. The new strain has led Britain to reimpose flight bans on six southern African countries, which could deal another heavy blow to their economies.
Coronavirus cases are once again on the rise in South Africa.
Amid the spike, several mutations of a new variant called the B 1.1.529 have been detected in the country, Botswana and Hong Kong.
It has sparked concern it could compete with the previously dominant delta variant and trigger another wave of the pandemic.
Dr. Michelle Groome is with South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
"There's the potential that this could be more transmissible and that this, there is potential immune escape, but we don't know yet," said Groome. 'We are busy conducting some laboratory tests, obviously, we can have a look at how, you know, this new variant reacts both to, you know, serum from people who have been infected previously, as well as vaccinated, which will give us a better idea of the potential immune escape."
The uncertainty has prompted travel restrictions.
Britain added six African countries to its so-called red list today, requiring quarantine for incoming travelers and temporarily banning flights.
The European Union also is looking at halting air travel from southern Africa.
The South African government has called the decisions "rushed" and raised concerns about the impact on business.
The CEO of South Africa's inbound tourism association, David Frost, says the effects will be devastating on the sector.
'We got off the red list in in October and it was sorely needed. We've been shut down for over 18 months," said Frost. 'You know, the industry really is on its knees. The impact of this is absolutely dire to livelihoods, to families."
While social distancing and mask use can help combat the virus, Dr. Groome also questions the efficacy of travel bans.
'We haven't been able to contain the spread initially of the of the original virus, and all subsequent variants have spread globally, you know," said Groome. 'I think there's limited value in terms of these restrictions."
Instead, she says vaccinating more of the population would help prevent the most severe cases and deaths.
Roughly 35 percent of the South Africa's adult population is vaccinated, a figure far below targets of 70 percent.
Figures are even lower across much of the continent.
Experts have warned vaccine inequality would create a breeding ground for the virus to mutate.
Passengers queue to get a PCR test against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) before traveling on international flights, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 26, 2021.
Astrid Haas is an independent urban economist in Kampala, Uganda.
'In Europe now and in North America, in particular, they're talking about booster shots and third vaccines, whereas we know now from the WHO, that less than 10% of African countries are going to even meet their vaccine target for this year. ...Just a very sad manifestation of the global vaccine inequity," said Haas.
In the absence of vaccinations, lockdowns may be on the horizon.
Such measures already have taken a harsh economic toll across southern Africa.
Haas says the halt to retail and other services has made it hard for many people to survive.
"Particularly with respect to the urban poor is that a lot of income is used to purchase food, or a high proportion of income is used to purchase food, and when they are not able to make income, then that affects food security as well," said Haas.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is convening the country's coronavirus council this weekend in response to the new variant.
The government says it will announce any new measures in coming days.