The new Covid-19 variant, B.1.1.529, detected in South Africa is mainly affecting people in the under 25 age group, among whom the vaccination rate against the virus is only 26 per cent, according to health officials.
Professor Anne von Gottberg from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said the variant had been detected in about 100 genomes so far.
Regarding the affected group, South Africa's Health Minister Joe Phaahla said: "They are at great risk," Times Live reported.
KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) genome sequencer Professor Tulio de Oliveira said the new variant "is concerning for predicted immune-evasion and transmissibility".
Twenty-two positive cases of the variant have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing collaborations between the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, and private laboratories. In addition, other NGS-SA laboratories are confirming more cases as sequencing results come out.
"It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa," comments Professor Adrian Puren, NICD Acting Executive Director.
"Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be. Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date."
Confirmed cases is increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo.
Michelle Groome, Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the NICD, said that provincial health authorities remain on high alert and are prioritising the sequencing of Covid-19 positive samples.
The South African news outlet reported that with Gauteng emerging as the epicentre of the fourth wave of the pandemic once again, it's no surprise that the province has recorded the most number of infections from the B.1.1.529 variant.
While Johannesburg and Tshwane were both considered hotspots for the previous waves, for now focus is on the capital. Areas such as Pretoria West, Atteridgeville, Centurion, Hatfield, and Soshanguve identified as a cause for concern.
"This variant surprised us... It has a big jump on evolution," said Professor de Oliveira, News 24 reported.
South Africa has a large collaborative genomic surveillance network, which involves detecting and researching variants and controlling outbreaks.
Krisp is the principal investigative institute of this network.
De Oliveira added it had many more mutations than scientists expected, especially after a severe third wave, which was driven by the Delta variant.
"Many of the mutations are of concern for immune evasion and transmissibility. We can see the variant potentially spreading very fast... We do expect, unfortunately, to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks."
Around 90 per cent of the cases linked to this variant were from Gauteng, he added, the report added.
The team is generating data from other provinces.
Another scientist pointed out there were early signs from diagnostic lab tests this variant might already be present in many of the other provinces, although he cautioned this was based on a much smaller number of positive PCR tests.
"The cases are not rising to the same extent in the other provinces, but it gives us concern that this variant might be circulating quite widely in the country," said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert involved in surveillance for Covid-19 variants.