Explained: South Africa's new COVID-19 strain

South Africa’s COVID-19 variant is highly contagious, spreading rapidly and raising growing alarm globally

[British Health Minister Matt Hancock, saying:] "This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK."

[U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying:] "The one from the Republic of South Africa is a little bit more complicated..."

[WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesys, saying:] "This is a very dangerous time in the course of the pandemic."

Where did it come from, how dangerous is it and will vaccines work against it?

The mutation – referred to as 501.V2 - was discovered by a network of scientists around South Africa, first in Nelson Mandela Bay on the east coast - then spreading rapidly to the south and south east of the country.

Up to 90% of new cases are carrying the mutant variant, according to health authorities - driving a surge in infections that threatens to overwhelm South Africa’s healthcare system.

[Frontline nurse Rich Sicina, saying:] "Our wards are full, it's a very painful situation because a person in casualty...for you to get a bed, someone must die."

While hundreds of COVID-19 variations have been identified worldwide, this one appears to spread faster.

It is similar to the UK variant in that it shares a common mutation of the ‘spike’ protein, which the virus uses to infect cells.

However they are different variants.

The WHO says they originated separately and this one appears to have a number additional mutations.

[U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying:] “The one from the Republic of South Africa is a little bit more complicated because it overlaps a bit with the mutation in the UK, but it's a little bit more complicated because some of those mutations might have a negative impact on the efficacy of some of the monoclonal antibodies that are used so we're looking into that very carefully."

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine appears to work against both variants, according to early lab tests.

But the findings are limited and authorities say it is too early to tell at this stage if the inoculations will be effective.

Scientists assure that the vaccines can be modified if needed in as little as six weeks.