Just as it seemed that control of COVID-19 was within reach, news of a new variant in southern Africa has affected scientists, health officials and the general public.
Currently known as B.1.1.529 – and probably named by the World Health Organization (WHO) – the new variant has been detected in more than 20 samples taken from COVID-positive people in South Africa.
There are not many people in a country with 60 million.
However, the variant has emerged, just as daily cases shot up in South Africa, so experts are concerned that it may be the most potent strain yet. Here’s what we know.
Are researchers worried about the new variant?
There is still a lot of research to be done, but researchers are concerned about the number of changes in this variant’s genetic code.
It is normal for viruses to mutate over time, so scientists are very careful when these changes change the way the virus behaves.
Professor Edward Holmes, who studies the emergence of infectious diseases, said that the fact that this variant is so distinct from other variants is a concern.
“It’s definitely a serious concern,” he said.
“It has mutations throughout the nail protein that can enable it to avoid immune responses.”
Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatician with the South African Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said at a public briefing that the new variant had a “very unusual constellation of mutations”.
He explained that scientists had captured more than 30 changes to the tip protein alone, 10 of which could alter the part of the virus that binds to human cells.
The beta variant had three mutations for this part, and Delta only two, he said.
What is worrying about this is that vaccines – our best defense against COVID-19 – work by teaching our body to recognize and inactivate these parts of the virus.
If they change too much, our immune system may not notice them until it’s too late and we’re severely infected.
As Professor Tulio de Oliveira explained, some of the changes have been seen before and researchers know how they affect the behavior of the virus, but others have only rarely been seen.
“So the full meaning is still uncertain,” he said.
Where has the variant spread so far?
So far, the new variant has been found in three countries: Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong.
It was first discovered in Botswana earlier this month and the case in Hong Kong was a returned traveler from South Africa.
In South Africa, most of the confirmed cases have been found in the province of Gauteng, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
However, there are signs that it has spread more widely.
As it happens, one of the mutations to the tip protein appears in one of the regular tests used to diagnose COVID-19.
Richard Lessells, an infectious disease doctor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said it suggested the new strain was already appearing in other provinces in South Africa.
“It gives us concern that this variant may already be circulating quite widely in the country,” he said.
What do the health authorities do about it?
On the ground in South Africa, health authorities have urged people to continue disinfecting their hands, wearing masks in public and avoiding events that could spread the virus widely.
They are also working to increase vaccination rates, but apathy and hesitation have proven to be a challenge.
Is this a COVID-19 variant of concern or a variant of interest?
As of Friday afternoon, the WHO was still working on it.
“Right now, scientists are gathering to understand where these mutations are and what they could potentially mean for our diagnostics, our therapy, and our vaccines,” WHO COVID-19 technical director Maria Van Kerkhove said Friday.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what effect this variant has. There is a lot of work going on.”
The WHO Technical Working Group will meet today (Friday 26 November) to assess the new variant and decide whether it is a variant of concern or a variant of interest. It may also decide to give it a name from the Greek alphabet, just as it had for its predecessors, Alpha, Beta and Delta.
Will Australia ban travel to and from South Africa?
The UK has temporarily banned inbound flights from parts of Africa, but Health Minister Greg Hunt said there were no plans to change Australia’s travel rules – yet.
“If the medical advice is that we have to change [border restrictions], we will not hesitate, “said Mr. Hunt.
“At this stage, the advice of the Chief Medical Officer … is that there is no basis for change.”
The WHO said on Friday that it warned countries against taking this measure.
“At this time, there is a warning against implementing travel measures,” said WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier.
“The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”
Hunt pointed out that Australia was in a very different position now than when the former concern variant, Delta, emerged in India.
“At this point, there is very little traffic directly between South Africa and Australia. We also happen to be very highly vaccinated,” he said.
What are researchers looking for now?
There is still a lot we do not know about this variant, and that is why researchers are following it closely.
Professor Holmes said research should be done into how B.1.1.529 differs from the Delta variant and how the nail protein mutations affect its transmissibility.
“We have to act very fast and monitor its spread and do the essential biology to find out … is this particular variant capable of spreading very fast? And does it have immune evasive properties?” he said.
“That’s the crucial thing to do, just like right now.”
But with so many unknowns, Professor Cunningham said it was important to look at the variant closely.
“We have to be careful not to cry wolf,” he said.
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