South African doctors have remarked that more patients are younger, and do not always have other conditions that amplify the virus' effect, but are nonetheless suffering from more severe forms of COVID-19.
That "strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant," Mr Mkhize concluded.
South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections in Africa, approaching the 900,000 mark, with over 20,000 related deaths. A resurgence in cases saw the government tighten restrictions on society this week.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.
The global body added there was no indication there were changes in the way the new strain of the virus was behaving.
“We are working with them with our SARS-COV-2 Virus evolution working group. They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission,” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told a news conference in Geneva.
South African health authorities said the new variant seemed to spread faster than the previous iteration, but that it was too early to tell its severity and whether current vaccines would work against it.
“In the UK they have also identified a new variant ... there are quite a few similarities between the two lineages ... there are also a similar number of mutations” said Professor Tulio de Oliviera, a member of government’s genomics consortium in a televised briefing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called senior ministers to an unscheduled meeting on Friday evening to discuss how to contain a new, more virulent variant of the coronavirus, The Telegraph newspaper reported.
An emergency toughening of COVID-19 restrictions could be announced as soon as on Saturday, possibly including restrictions on travel between the southeast of England, including London, and the rest of the country, the newspaper said.
Britain’s government on Monday said a rise in new infections might be partly linked to the new variant as it moved its capital city and other areas into the highest tier of COVID-19 restrictions.