It appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa and scientists are concerned that the unusually high number of mutations could make it more transmissible and lead to immune evasion.
“Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but yesterday the indication came from our scientists at the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla said on Thursday, stressing that it is currently unclear where the variant first emerged.
South African officials initially said there was one confirmed case involving a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong. Then, Hong Kong health authorities on Friday identified a second case of the B.1.1.529 variant among returning travelers on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel.
Also on Friday, the Belgian government said a person who had recently arrived from abroad and had not been vaccinated had tested positive for the new variant, which was the first case in Europe.
Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant “has many more mutations than we expected”, adding that it is “spreading very quickly and we expect to see pressure in the coming years.” the health system will act”. few days and weeks.”
Viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate regularly and most new mutations do not significantly affect the behavior of the virus and the disease they cause.
The World Health Organization (WHO) will hold a meeting Friday to decide whether the B.1.1.529 variant should be classified as “of concern” or “of concern,” indications that indicate the amount of risk it could pose to the global Public health. The WHO added that it would share “further guidance to the government on actions they can take”.
What we know about the new variant
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the United Kingdom, said the variant was “very concerning.”
“It’s the most heavily mutated version of the virus we’ve seen yet. This variant has some changes that we’ve seen in other variants before, but never all together in one virus. It also has new mutations,” Young said in a statement .
Neil Ferguson, the director of the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said in a statement that the number of mutations on the spike protein was “unprecedented.”
“The Spike Protein Gene” [is] the protein targeted by most vaccines. There is therefore concern that this variant has a greater potential to escape previous immunity than previous variants,” Ferguson said.
Sharon Peacock, Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that while the total number of Covid-19 cases is relatively low in South Africa, there has been a rapid increase over the past seven days.
She said that while 273 new infections were registered on Nov. 16, the number had risen to more than 1,200 by Nov. 25, with more than 80% coming from Gauteng province.
“The epidemiological picture suggests that this variant may be more transmissible, and several mutations are consistent with increased transmissibility,” Peacock said in a comment shared by Britain’s Science Media Centre.
She added that while the significance of the mutations and their combination is unknown, some of the mutations present in the latest variant, in others, have been associated with immune evasion.
What we don’t know
Peacock, de Oliveira, Ferguson and other scientists said it was too early to tell the full impact of the mutations on vaccine efficacy.
Stressing that the injections are still the best tool against the virus, De Oliveira added that lab studies have yet to be conducted to test vaccine and antibody evasion.
More studies also need to be conducted to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants.
It’s also unclear where the new mutation came from. Although it was first identified in South Africa, it may have come from elsewhere.
“It’s important not to assume that the variant first showed up in South Africa,” Peacock said.
Scientists have praised South African health authorities for their swift response to a Covid-19 outbreak in Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.
When the number of cases started to rise faster in the province than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, enabling them to quickly identify the B.1.1.529 variant.
Peacock said the South African Department of Health and its scientists “should be commended for their response, their science and raising the alarm to the world.”
She added that the development shows the importance of having excellent sequencing capabilities and sharing expertise with others.
British officials announced on Thursday that six African countries will be added to England’s “red list” after the UK Health Security Agency raised concerns about the variant.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from 12 noon Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list, meaning residents from the UK and British and Irish nationals returning home from those departure points must undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
Javid said Friday it is “highly likely” that the B.1.1.529 variant has spread beyond southern Africa. In a statement to the British House of Commons on Friday, Javid expressed concern that it “could pose a significant risk to public health”.
dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Friday that the United States will make a decision as soon as possible about blocking travel from some African countries in light of the new variant.
CNN’s Duarte Mendonca, Niamh Kennedy and Mia Alberti in London, Andrew Carey and Amir Tal in Jerusalem, Antonia Mortensen in Milan, Tim Lister in Cordoba and Nadine Schmidt in Berlin contributed coverage.