A new Covid-19 variant which has an "extremely high" number of mutations and the potential to escape vaccines has been identified in South Africa, Botswana and one case in Hong Kong, where the person had recently travelled from South Africa.

While case numbers are currently still small, the B.1.1.529 strain has 32 spike mutations. Only 10 cases of the variant have been identified through genomic sequencing.

The new variant was identified on Tuesday by Imperial College London virologist Tom Peacock.

The variant’s 32 spike mutations -  which allow the virus to adapt and become more transmissible, and escape vaccines - are described as “extremely high”, while the Delta variant, which is now dominant across the world, has 16.

While new Covid variants are identified all the time, they often do not become widespread, however the Hong Kong case originally from South Africa could cause concern that further infections will spread through international travel.

Officials and scientists at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) are monitoring and investigating the variant.

On Twitter, Dr Peacock said: "He added: “Worth emphasising this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled, however it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile (would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about).”

It is understood that the Hong Kong case was a 36-year-old man who travelled to South Africa on October 23 and returned on 11 November. 

He tested negative on arrival back in Hong Kong tested positive while at a quarantine hotel. 

In South Africa, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 has increased to more than 860 on Tuesday, after recording 312 on Monday but scientists believe it is too soon to tell whether there is a link with the new “super variant”.

It is understood that all governments where the variant has been identified, in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, are aware of the cases.

Dr Meera Chand, Covid-19 Incident Director at UKHSA, said: “The UK Health Security Agency, in partnership with scientific bodies across the globe, is constantly monitoring the status of SARS-CoV-2 variants as they emerge and develop worldwide.

“As it is in the nature of viruses to mutate often and at random, it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations. Any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed.”