Australia announced on Friday that it was carrying out an investigation into a newly found COVID-19 variant that is spreading in South Africa and warned that it may block its borders to travelers from the African country if the risk of infection increased.
South Africa's health minister revealed Thursday the identification of a new coronavirus type that is rapidly spreading throughout the country.
Although the new strain, currently designated B.1.1529, has been found in various countries, fewer than 100 confirmed cases have been reported so far.
"We are, as we have always been, adaptable. And if medical opinion indicates that we should alter that, we will not hesitate," Greg Hunt, Australia's health minister, told reporters in Sydney on Friday.
"That is what we have done as a country, whether it was through border closures or quarantine," Hunt added.
During a news briefing, genetic scientists stated that the version contains an extremely high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the critical spike protein - the component that the virus utilizes to infect cells.
Concerned about the variant, Britain placed a temporary ban on flights from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini on Friday and required returning British citizens to quarantine.
British health authorities warned that the new strain may reduce the effectiveness of immunizations since it contains a spike protein that differs from the one found in the original coronavirus upon which vaccines are based.
The World Health Organization stated that it will take "a few weeks" to assess the new variant's impact. The WHO categorizes the variant as a "variant under monitoring."
If the WHO determines that this is a substantial new strain, it will be given the Greek label "Nu."
For the first time during the pandemic, Australia loosened international border restrictions earlier this month, enabling fully vaccinated residents to return to the country without quarantine following higher vaccination levels.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, stated that the variation is "growing rapidly" and that "pressure on the health system is expected in the coming days and weeks."
Officials also voiced concern that the mutation could result in immune evasion and increased virus transmissibility, but stressed that it is too early to determine the mutation's effect on vaccination efficacy.
Additional research is also needed to determine the variant's clinical severity in comparison to earlier variants, officials said.