SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia on Friday said it was investigating the newly identified variant of COVID-19 spreading in South Africa and warned it could close its borders to travelers from the African nation if the associated risks at the new strain increased.

South African scientists fear that the new variant may evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible because it has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt has said he will react quickly if the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies it as a major new variant.

“As we always have been, we are flexible. And if the medical opinion is that we need to change that, we will not hesitate,” Hunt told reporters in Sydney. “That’s what we did as a country, if it closed the borders, if it made sure there was a quarantine.”

Alarmed by the variant, Britain has temporarily banned flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from Friday, and asked returning British travelers of these destinations to quarantine.

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British health officials have said the new strain could make vaccines less effective because it contains a different spike protein than the original coronavirus the vaccines are based on.

WHO said it would take “a few weeks” to understand the impact of the new variant.

Australia earlier this month eased international border restrictions for the first time during the pandemic, allowing fully vaccinated residents to return to the country without quarantine after higher vaccination levels.

Australia had largely eliminated infections for most of this year until an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant in late June spread rapidly in its east. About 205,000 cases and 1,985 deaths have been recorded so far, less than in many other countries in the developed world.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Michael Perry)

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