A severe variant of coronavirus has been detected in South Africa which could explain the rapid spread of a second wave affecting younger people, the health minister said today.

Known as the 501.V2 Variant, it was identified by South African researchers and details have been sent to the World Health Organization, Zwelini Mkhize said in a statement.

A team led by the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), has sequenced hundreds of virus samples since the pandemic began.

Mr Mkhize said it "noticed that a particular variant has increasingly dominated the findings of the samples collected in the past two months".

South African doctors have remarked that more patients are younger, and do not always have other conditions that amplify the virus' effect, but are nonetheless suffering from more severe forms of Covid-19.

That "strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant," Mr Mkhize concluded.

The research team, led by Tulio de Oliveira, has shared its findings with the scientific community and alerted authorities in Britain, who have "studied their own samples and found that a similar mutation ... was the variant that was driving their resurgence in London," he said.

Variants of the coronavirus have regularly been identified and called to the attention of global health officials.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said today it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.

The global body said there was no indication there were changes in the way the new strain of the virus was behaving.

"We are working with them with our SARS-COV-2 Virus evolution working group," WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told a news conference in Geneva.

"They are growing the virus in the country and they're working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission."

South Africa has been affected more by the coronavirus than other countries on the continent, and as of today had recorded 24,845 deaths and more than 900,000 cases among a population of almost 60 million people.

More than 8,700 cases were detected there in the previous 24 hours, still well below the peak of around 12,000 per day seen in July.


Latest coronavirus stories


Meanwhile, The Telegraph newspaper is reporting that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called senior ministers to an unscheduled meeting this evening to discuss how to contain the UK's new, more virulent variant of the coronavirus.

An emergency toughening of Covid-19 restrictions could be announced as soon as tomorrow, the newspaper said. A spokesman for Mr Johnson said he was unable to comment on the report immediately.

The Telegraph also reported that UK officials expected the AstraZeneca-Oxford University Covid vaccine would clear regulatory approval on 28 or 29 December, helping to accelerate the vaccination campaign in Britain.