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Scientists in South Africa said Thursday they had detected a new Covid-19 variant with multiple mutations, in an announcement that came after a recent rise in infection numbers.

"Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa," virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference.

It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, he said.

The new variant, called B.1.1529, carries an unusually large number of mutations, Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, said in a statement published by the Science Media Centre. It’s likely to have evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, he said.

“It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage," Balloux said. “For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future."

South Africa has detected 22 cases of the variant, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement.

“It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa," NICD Acting Executive Director Adrian Puren said in the statement. “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."

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of "serious concern" and behind an "exponential" increase in reported cases.

Daily infections shot to more than 1,200 cases on Wednesday, from around 100 earlier this month.

South Africa last year detected the Beta variant of the virus although until now infection numbers have been driven by the Delta variant, which was originally detected in India.

South Africa has the highest pandemic numbers in Africa, notching up around 2.95 million cases, of which 89,657 have been fatal.

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