JOHANNESBURG — A concerning new variant of the coronavirus, whose mutations evidence a “big jump in evolution,” is driving a spike in new Covid-19 infections in South Africa, scientists said on Thursday.
In the last 36 hours after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub, the Gauteng province, scientists detected the B1.1.529 variant. So far, 22 positive cases have been identified in South Africa, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Since the onset of the pandemic, a number of variants have emerged. One underlying concern about new variants is whether they will stymie progress against the pandemic or whether they will limit the vaccine’s effectiveness. South African scientists will meet with the World Health Organization technical team on Friday, where authorities will assign a letter of the Greek alphabet to this one.
Botswana’s health ministry confirmed in a statement that four cases of the new variant were detected in people who were all fully vaccinated. All four were tested before their planned travel. One sample was also detected in Hong Kong, carried by a traveler from South Africa, South African scientists said.
With over 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is much lower than in Germany, where new cases are driving a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises fears that it could be highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm early.
“This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
The B1.1.529 variant has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, said Mr. de Oliveira. On the ACE2 receptor — the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells — the new variant has 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three, the Delta variant has two, said Mr. de Oliveira.
Displaying mutations that might resist neutralization, scientists are also still unclear how effective existing vaccines will be against the new variant. The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” said Mr. Lessells.
The new variant has largely been detected among young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of those ages between 18 and 34 are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s minister of health.
While cases of the new variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the capital Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, said Mr. Phaahla.
A giant, animatronic turkey once again waddled down Central Park West at the head of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which returned on Thursday in its full, helium-filled glory.
Last holiday, the coronavirus forced officials to order a one-block long, nearly crowd-free version of the parade, which typically runs from 77th Street on the Upper West Side to Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan. The parade, which began in 1924 and is in its 95th iteration, has been canceled rarely, including during World War II.
Over 4,500 volunteers strolled along the 2.5 mile route and towed among them 15 giant helium balloons, including old favorites like Smokey Bear, and newcomers like Ada Twist, Scientist, from the popular storybook, who clocks in at 51-feet tall.
The return of such sights — of large crowds, of public joy, of celebrities on floats and beloved characters transformed into balloons — felt deeply symbolic for many who anticipated the spectacle.
“Moments of celebration are important,” said Leroy Lamar, who came with his family to see the parade from Atlanta. “And it is important that we do them together.”
Thousands rushed to book vaccination appointments in France on Thursday after the government announced that all adults were eligible for a booster shot and that health passes would no longer be valid after a certain period if they failed to get one.
France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, said at a news conference on Thursday that France was experiencing a new wave of cases that would be “stronger and longer” than the one over the summer, but that “no lockdown, no curfew, no store closures, no travel restrictions” would be enforced.
By focusing on vaccinations and social distancing measures, he said, “we are making the choice to reconcile freedom and responsibility.”
Starting this weekend, anyone age 18 and above will be able to get a booster shot, beginning five months after their second injection at the earliest, Mr. Véran said. Previously the booster shot was available only for health care workers, those at high risk of severe Covid and people 65 and above. Approximately 19 million people are affected by the new announcement, Mr. Véran said.
Some adults who have not received a booster shot within seven months of their second injection will see their passes expire, barring access to restaurants, museums, long-distance trains and other public places unless they get tested regularly, Mr. Véran said.
He said that over 400,000 vaccination appointments had been booked on Wednesday, ahead of his news conference.
About 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. But the number of new daily cases has spiked recently to about 30,000 over the past few days, according to French officials, and have reached the prime minister. The recent surge has led to the closure of 8,500 school classes, up from 4,100 last week.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s education minister, announced at the news conference that classes would no longer close if one student tests positive, but that they will require that all students continue to be tested. Only those who test negative will be able to return, he said.
Hospitalizations — mainly of unvaccinated patients — have also been increasing, according to French health authorities.
Mr. Véran also urged the French to observe social distancing rules and guidelines. He announced that starting on Friday, masks would be mandatory indoors even for establishments or events that require a health pass, and that the pass would also be required to gain access to Christmas markets.
“We must remain vigilant at all times, get back to good habits,” Mr. Veran said.
Thanksgiving air travel did not reach the record highs of 2019, but it was close. About 2.3 million people passed through Transportation Safety Administration checkpoints on Wednesday, more travelers than on any other day during the pandemic.
This figure was more than twice as many travelers as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year. This year’s total was about 88…