South Africa’s government rejected allegations that a new variant of the coronavirus found in the country has contributed to a second wave of infections in the U.K. and criticized its decision to impose travel restrictions.
A new virus variant that was detected in the U.K. has a mutation occurring at a site common with the South African strain, known as 501.V2, but they are “two completely independent lineages,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a statement late Thursday.
There’s no evidence that 501.V2 causes more severe disease or increased mortality than any other variant that’s been sequenced around the world, he said. Mkhize’s comments came a day after U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that flights from South Africa will be banned and that anyone who’s been there in the past two weeks must quarantine immediately. Several other countries have also halted flights from South Africa.
The new U.K. strain was identified about a month before the South African variant appeared to have developed, Mkhize said, citing ongoing research by the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, which was launched in June. He described Hancock’s announcement as “unfortunate.”
“It is the widely shared view of the scientific community that, given the current circumstantial evidence, the risks of travel bans may outweigh the benefits, and that it is possible to contain the variants while sustaining international travel,” Mkhize said. “We, therefore, maintain that non-pharmaceutical interventions and strict containment measures remain most important to reduce the risk of transmission.”
Coronavirus infections in South Africa have surged since the government eased most restrictions several months ago, and a second wave is now coinciding with the summer holidays. The Health Ministry registered a record 14,305 new cases on Thursday, bringing the cumulative total to 968,563.
Experts in South Africa lead the field of genomics surveillance alongside those from institutions in Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands and the U.K., and have shared all information on the evolution of the coronavirus with the World Health Organization, Mkhize said.