What we know about the new highly mutated Covid variant found in South Africa

The newly identified variant, currently known as B.1.1.529, appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa, and researchers are concerned that its unusually high number of mutations may make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion.

“At first it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday came the indication from our researchers from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they observed a new variant,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Thursday, stressing that it is currently unclear where the variant first appeared. .

It has so far been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and in another traveler Hong Kong from South Africa, Phaahla added.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the South African Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “many more mutations than we expected,” adding that it “is spreading very fast and we expect to see pressure in the health system in it. next few days and weeks. ”

Viruses, including those that cause Covid-19, mutate regularly, and most new mutations do not significantly affect the virus’ behavior and the disease they cause.

The World Health Organization (WHO) will hold a meeting on Friday to decide whether the B.1.1.529 variant should be considered an “of interest” or “of concern”, designations indicating the amount of risk it may constitute for 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 worrying.”

“It’s the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen to date. This variant has some changes we’ve seen before in other variants, but never all in one virus. It also has new mutations,” Young said in a statement. .

Variants has a high number of mutations, about 50 in total. It is crucial that South African genomic scientists said on Thursday that more than 30 of the mutations were found in peak protein – the structure that the virus uses to enter the cells it attacks.

Neil Ferguson, 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 nail protein was “unprecedented.”

“The nail protein gene [is] the protein that is the target of most vaccines. There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape earlier immunity than previous variants, “Ferguson said.

Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that although the total number of Covid-19 cases is relatively low in South Africa, there has been a rapid increase in the last seven days.

She said that while 273 new infections were registered on 16 November, the number had risen to more than 1,200 cases on 25 November, 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 commentary shared by the British Science Media Center.

She added that although the significance of the mutations and their combination is unknown, some of those present in the latest variant have been linked in others to immunosuppression.

What we do not know

Peacock, de Oliveira, Ferguson and other scientists said it was too early to say the full effect of the mutations on the vaccine’s effectiveness.

De Oliveira stressed that the shots are still the best tool against the virus, adding that laboratory tests still need to be performed to test for vaccine and antibody evasion.

Several studies also need to be performed to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants.

It is also unclear where the new mutation originated from. While first identified in South Africa, it may have come from elsewhere.

“It is important not to assume that the variant first appeared in South Africa,” Peacock said.

Quick response

Researchers have praised South African health authorities for their quick response to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country’s Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.

As cases in the province began to increase at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, allowing them to quickly identify the B.1.1.529 variant.

Peacock said the South African Ministry of Health and its scientists “should be applauded in their response, their science and in sounding the alarm to the world.”

She added that developments show how important it is to have excellent sequencing skills and to share expertise with others.

The reaction to the announcement of the new variant, discovered by South African health authorities, was also swift. A number of countries have introduced new travel bans and markets in the US, Asia and Europe took a leap after the news.
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British officials announced on Thursday that six African countries would be added to England’s “red list” after the British Health Security Agency expressed concern over the variant.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said flights to Britain from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from Friday noon and all six countries would be added to the red list – meaning residents of Britain and British and Irish nationals Arriving home from these points of departure, you must undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at your own expense.

On Friday, Javid said it was “very likely” that the B.1.1.529 variant has spread across 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.”

It has South Africa, as do large parts of the region suffered through three significant Covid-19 waves since the start of the pandemic. While the number of new infections across the country is now still relatively low and positivity levels are below 5%, public health authorities have already predicted a fourth wave due to a slow vaccine intake.

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 reporting.

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