A new variant of COVID-19 that has been detected in South Africa is a “cause for concern,” a top virologist has warned.
The B.1.1.529 variant, which has been described as having an “awful spike mutation profile,” has been detected in a number of coronavirus cases in the country.
South African scientists, who had already detected the Beta variant, say the new variant has an “extremely high” number of mutations.
It is not currently clear how effective vaccines will be against it.
Here’s what we know so far.
What is different about B.1.1.529?
“We have unfortunately detected a new variant that is a cause for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told an online press conference.
He explained that the high number of spike mutations – believed to be at least 32 at the moment – raise concerns about its ability to evade vaccines and to spread.
The spike protein is what helps the virus to invade the body’s cells.
Currently, the full significance of the new variant is not yet known.
Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial Department of Infectious Disease in the UK, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday a “very small cluster of variant associated with Southern Africa with very long branch length and really awful Spike mutation profile” had been spotted.
Where has B.1.1.529 been detected so far?
It was first detected in South Africa, with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stating on Thursday that it had confirmed 22 positive cases, with more cases being confirmed as test results come out.
It has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, the case in Hong Kong being a traveller from South Africa.
“It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa,” said Professor Adrian Puren, NICD Acting Executive Director.
“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” he added.
Scientists believe as many as 90 percent of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, with detected cases in North West and Limpopo also increasing rapidly.
The appearance of this variant is probably the reason for the “exponential” increase in infections in recent weeks, according to Health Minister Joe Phaahla, who attended the press conference.
De Oliveira insisted that just because it was first detected in South Africa, doesn’t mean that’s where it originated.
He added that “one bit of good news” about the variant is that it can be detected by a particular PCR test, meaning it can be detected quickly, helping scientists to track the spread.
South Africa, which fears a new wave of the pandemic by the end of the year, is officially the continent’s worst affected by the pandemic.
It has more than 2.9 million cases and more than 89,600 deaths.
Could B.1.1.529 be more dangerous than the Delta variant?
The Delta variant is currently the world’s dominant COVID-19 variant.
First detected in India, it swept across the world proving to be more contagious than previously dominant variations of the virus.
It spreads so easily because its spike protein is more adept at entering human cells than previous variants.
The worry about the new B.1.1.529 variant is the high number of mutations, which could help it to avoid the body’s defences.
Currently, scientists do not have enough data to discern how dangerous this variant could be.
Professor Christina Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at UCL, said on Twitter B.1.1.529 “might have significant advantages over Delta and C.1.2.,” C.1.2. being another variant linked to high transmissibility.
“We do know that B.1.529 has many more mutations than other variants and has mutations seen in other variants that are associated with both higher transmissibility and immune escape,” she added.
“It’s the number and type of mutations that are worrying the virologists & immunologists”.
Dr Michelle Groome, an official from NICD, said that in the face of the new variants people “should get vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, maintain social distancing, and gather in well-ventilated spaces” to limit its spread.