Explainer: What is this new type of COVID in South Africa?

LONDON – What is this new, changing COVID-19 virus in South Africa?

Health Minister Joe Vahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the past few days, although experts were still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1.529, was actually responsible.

From more than 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rise to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists have studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

On Friday, the World Health Organization held a meeting of a group of experts to assess the data from South Africa.

Why are scientists concerned about this new alternative?

It appears to have a large number of mutations – about 30 – in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.

Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggested the new variant contained mutations “consistent with improved transmissibility”, but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not.” a favour “.

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen.” He said he was concerned that although the variant was only detected at low levels in parts of South Africa, “it appears to be spreading rapidly.”

What is known and unknown about the variable?

We know that the new variant is genetically different from previous variants including beta and delta variants, but we don’t know if these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous.

South African scientists have noticed a rise in the number of cases, but we don’t know if the new alternative is responsible and it will take weeks to find out if the vaccines are still effective against it.

So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more serious disease. South African experts said that, as with other variants, some infected people do not show any symptoms.

It’s impossible to make any predictions about whether the virus is more dangerous or contagious based on its genetic makeup alone, said François Balloux, director of the Institute of Genetics at University College London.

How did this new variable arise?

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrisome genetic changes, often die. Scientists are watching the sequence of COVID-19 for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or fatal, but they can’t tell just by looking at the virus. They must compare the disease pattern in outbreaks to the genetic sequence and determine if there is actual contact that can take time.

The variant “may have evolved in an infected person but was then unable to eliminate the virus, giving the virus a chance to evolve genetically,” Peacock said, in a scenario similar to how experts think of the alpha variant – which was first identified in England – also emerged. , by a mutation in an immunocompromised person.

Are travel restrictions imposed by some countries justified?

Could. From noon on Friday, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union countries moved quickly on Friday to try to halt air travel from South Africa.

Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent,” said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.

If the new variant turns out to be more contagious than Delta, the new restrictions will have little effect, said Ballox of University College London, but they could still buy the UK some time to boost vaccination rates and roll out other potential interventions.

what happened after that?

The World Health Organization has invited a technical team of experts to decide whether a new variable warrants its designation as a variable of interest or a variable of concern. If they did, the variable would likely be named after a letter from the Greek alphabet, in keeping with the current naming system.

The variants of interest – which currently include mu and lambda variants – have genetic changes known to affect things like transmissibility and disease severity and have been identified to cause large clusters in multiple countries.

Variants of concern – which include alpha, beta and delta – have shown that they can spread more easily, cause more serious disease or make current tools such as vaccines less effective.

To date, the delta variant remains by far the most transmissible form of COVID; They represent more than 99% of the sequences shared with the world’s largest public database.

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