South African researchers have identified a new version of coronavirus this week, as they say, is behind a recent rise COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
It is unclear where the new variant actually originated, but it was first discovered by scientists in South Africa and has also been seen in travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” in cases in the last few days, though experts are still trying to determine if the new variant, called B.1.1.529, is actually responsible.
From just over 200 new confirmed cases a day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to more than 1,200 on Wednesday and to 2,465 a day later. The researchers struggled to explain the sudden increase in cases and studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.
South African experts said that so far there are no indications that the variant causes more serious or unusual disease and noted that as with other variants, some infected people have no symptoms.
Why are scientists worried about this new variant?
It appears to have a high number of mutations – about 30 – in coronavirus nail protein, which can affect how easily it spreads to humans.
Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest that the new variant has mutations “consistent with increased transmissibility”, but said that “the importance of Many of the mutations are still unknown. “
She said it would take several weeks to do the necessary laboratory tests to determine if the current coronavirus vaccines are still effective against the new variant.
Peacock also said there was no indication that the variant causes more fatal disease.
Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said the sharp frequency of COVID-19 infections in South Africa, and in the province of Gauteng in particular, was worrying.
“The biggest risk is that (this variant) is better at re-infecting humans as well as being more transmissible and virulent,” he said in a statement. But Balloux said it is unclear at this time whether it is because the virus is inherently more contagious.
He stressed that while it was possible that the new variant is capable of re-infecting previously immunized humans, “we can not make any robust predictions based on its genetic makeup solely on its expected transmissibility or virulence.”
How did this new variant originate?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new varieties, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out.
Researchers are monitoring COVID-19 sequences for mutations that can make the disease more contagious or fatal, but they can not determine it simply by looking at the virus. They need to compare the disease pattern at outbreak with the genetic sequences and finding out if there is a real link can take time.
Some scientists have speculated that the new variant occurred in an immunocompromised patient due to the large number of mutations.
Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in a person who was infected but then could not remove the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve,” in a scenario similar to how experts believe alpha- the variant – which was first identified in England – also appeared.
Are travel restrictions imposed by some countries justified?
Maybe. From Friday noon, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to isolate themselves for 10 days.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, it is “cautious” to restrict travel from the region, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.
He said the new variant has an “unprecedented” number of mutations and said that compared to previous variants, the newly identified version in South Africa can more easily avoid current vaccines.
Balloux from University College London said that if the new variant proves to be more contagious than delta, the new restrictions will have little impact but that they can still buy the UK some time to increase vaccination rates and roll out other possible interventions.
The WHO Technical Group of Experts meets to assess the South Africa data and to decide whether the new variant justifies being designated as a variant of interest or a variant of concern.
Variants of interest – which currently include the mu and lambda variants – have genetic changes that are known to affect things like transmissibility and disease severity and have been identified to cause significant clusters in several countries.
Varieties of concern – which include alpha, beta and delta – have been shown to spread more easily, cause more serious illness or make current tools such as vaccines less effective.
To date, the delta variant is still by far the most transferable form of COVID; it accounts for more than 99 percent of the sequences shared with the world’s largest public database.