The World Health Organization has declared an emergency meeting today for officials to talk about the “heavily mutated” new variant of COVID-19 that has already led to a spike in coronavirus cases in South Africa.

The new variant is known as B.1.1.529, and it is said to be highly contagious among young people, according to Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s minister of health. Officials fear that the new variant is the most heavily mutated so far in the outbreak, according to the BBC. Scientists have described this variant as “horrific,” It is believed that during the WHO’s meeting today, it will be given a Greek code-name like the delta variant. (UPDATE: Now named Omicron)

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“This variant did surprise us,” said Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Center for South Africa’s Epidemic Response and Innovation. “It has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected.”

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said yesterday that scientists “don’t know very much about this yet” and that it would take a few weeks to figure out how the variants react to existing jabs, according to NBC News.

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Nature Magazine reported that this variant first popped up in Botswana earlier in November, and scientists are desperately trying to see if it can evade the immune response.

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“We’re flying at warp speed,” one South African researcher was quoted as saying.

“A burning question is does it reduce vaccine effectiveness because it has so many changes,” added Aris Katzourakis, an expert at virus evolution at the University of Oxford.

As of noon today, the British government banned all flights from South Africa and five other countries in Southern Africa. The U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid explained that experts fear that this variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it, according to Fox News.

British Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps defended the banning of flights from these countries, calling the move essential given the current circumstances. He added that the spike protein was “dramatically different” from the virus that the vaccines were designed to counter.

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“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date, and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity, and vaccine-susceptibility,” said U.K. HSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries.

It remains to be seen how this latest variant will play out.

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