On Thursday, South Africa’s Minister of Health Joe Phaahla announced the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant spreading rapidly throughout the country.

“Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant,” said Phaahla.

The variant, currently named B.1.1.529, has been detected in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong, China.

Scientists have concluded that the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 mutations in the key spike protein which allows the virus to enter the cells it attacks.

Director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, said the variant has “many more mutations than we have expected,” adding it is “spreading very fast and we expect to see pressure in the health system in the next few days and weeks.” 

There is also concerns from scientists about the possible immune evasion and enhanced transmissibility of the virus, but officials say it is still too early to determine the effects on vaccine efficacy.