JOHANNESBURG 

South Africa’s health minister said Thursday there is no evidence that the newly discovered COVID-19 variant circulating in the country is more dangerous or transmittable than those in other countries.  

Zweli Mkhize said he is concerned over remarks made by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Wednesday which created the perception that the variant in South Africa has been a major factor in the second COVID-19 wave in the UK.

“This is not correct. There is evidence that the UK variant developed earlier than the South African variant,” Mkhize said.

On Wednesday, the UK imposed a ban on travelers from South Africa amid concern over a variant of COVID-19 linked to the country.

Addressing a media briefing Wednesday at Downing Street, Hancock said the new variant linked to South Africa was “highly concerning” because it is yet more transmissible and appeared to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK. 

The South African variant was reportedly detected for the first time in the UK on Tuesday. The variant was found in people who had visited South Africa. The UK ordered those who have been to South Africa or have been in contact with those who travelled to the country to immediately quarantine.

“Banning travel between the UK and South Africa is an unfortunate decision. Such a decision would require more scientific evidence than is currently available,” Mkhize said.

Mkhize said their genomics team has assured them that at present, there is no evidence that the 501.V2 South African variant is more transmissible than the UK variant as suggested by Hancock.

“There is also no evidence that the 501.V2 [variant] causes more severe disease or increased mortality than the UK variant or any variant that has been sequenced around the world,” he said.

Mkhize said that on Dec. 14, the UK reported to the World Health Organization that a variant had been identified and traced back to Sept. 20 2020 in Kent, South East England — approximately a month before the South African variant appears to have developed.

The UK variant is thought to be driving the second wave of COVID-19 the country is currently experiencing.

South Africa has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths on the continent with 968,563 confirmed infections and 25,983 deaths recorded. It is the 18th most-affected country worldwide.

The UK has 2,195,120 confirmed cases and 69,731 deaths and is the sixth most affected country globally.

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