Afsané Sabouhi and Manon Fossat 2:13 p.m., November 26, 2021

The appearance of a new variant of Covid-19 in South Africa is worrying.

On Friday, the French government announced the immediate suspension of arrivals from southern Africa.

If for the moment the data concerning it are not sufficient, the risk is that it is much more transmissible than the Delta variant.

France has announced that it will immediately suspend arrivals from seven southern African countries, including South Africa, due to "the discovery of a new variant of the particularly worrying coronavirus".

While traveling to Brest, the Minister of Health Olivier Véran indicated that this new South African variant "has not been diagnosed in Europe to date".

"And we do not want to be led to diagnose (it) on national and European territory, if only as long as we do not know more about its dangerousness", he stressed.

And for good reason, the first scientific data available are not reassuring.

A variant of Covid with many mutations?

This variant would indeed have about ten mutations compared to the initial SARS-COv2 virus, mutations which seem to give it an even greater propagation potential than the Delta variant. It would therefore have the capacity to quickly become the dominant variant in a population. And what worries researchers is that it seems able to bypass some of our immune defenses and could therefore escape vaccines. 

Invited to Europe Midi on Friday, epidemiologist Antoine Flahault was also worried.

"It worries us first because it has a lot of mutations - about thirty - compared to the delta variant which had two. Secondly, it is associated with a significant increase in cases in southern Africa, and each time we saw a variant worry us, it was still in a very intense epidemic focus, "he said, taking the example of the United Kingdom and India.

Particular resistance to vaccines?

South Africa announced the detection of this variant on Thursday and 22 cases have been reported.

Some have been recorded in neighboring Botswana, in Hong Kong on a traveler returning from South Africa and also in Israel on a person returning from Malawi.

The infected travelers were apparently all vaccinated. 

>> Find Europe midi in replay and podcast here

The World Health Organization is therefore meeting urgently this afternoon to determine the dangerousness of this new variant. But she already indicates that it will surely take several weeks to understand the level of transmissibility and virulence of the new variant. An observation shared by Antoine Flahaut, for whom there is not yet enough data. "It was discovered very little time ago [...] Today we have the impression that it is much more transmissible but is it more virulent? It is still too early to say say it ", he judged. 

The Pfizer laboratory also said Friday noon to be studying the effectiveness of its vaccine against this new variant and that it should be able to give answers no later than two weeks.

"On the Delta variant there is certainly a loss of vaccine protection on transmission but no loss on severe forms. For this new variant, it is much too early to say that it would have resistance to the vaccines. British researchers have also been able to show that it is really this Spike protein, this set of keys that allows the virus to enter cells, which appears to be highly mutated. concerns, "said the epidemiologist. 

"A story marked by new variants"

He finally considered "very important" the measure taken by the French government to suspend arrivals from South Africa.

"These are probably not tight barriers, but we save time and it is important to save time. We are still learning the lessons of this pandemic and of the past months: the Delta variant, originating in India, has entered very quickly in Great Britain last April, because the airlines had remained open for too long, "recalled Antoine Flahaut. 


- Covid-19: Morocco suspends flights to and from France

The epidemiologist assured him, we will have "a history marked by new variants" in the months to come, "because this is the life of this virus".

"You just have to take initial precautions, assess, take stock and then make the right decisions."

In recent hours, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom have adopted similar restrictions in the face of the threat posed by the variant currently called B.1.1.529.