Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

A new COVID-19 variant that seems more potent than previous forms is behind an increase in new cases in South Africa, according to the country’s health authorities.

In an impromptu speech late yesterday, South Africa’s health minister and several experts warned that mutations discovered in the genetic code of the new COVID-19 variant could make the virus both more transmissible and better able to evade the immune system.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said it had detected 22 positive cases of the variant, currently known as B.1.1.529.

In the last few weeks, the country had experienced a daily number of new cases of several hundred, but in the last few days it shot in the thousands and hit 2,465 yesterday.

Data collected by laboratories across the country indicate that the variant is mostly present in the densely populated province of Gauteng, which contains South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg and the administrative capital Pretoria. But the variant is also found in other provinces.

A man receives a vaccine while a health worker behind looks into a room on a train
The mutations and transmissibility of the B.1.1.529 variant have worried health officials. (Reuters: Siphiwe Sibeko )

The mutated virus has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, where it was found in a traveler from South Africa.

In a statement, NICD acting CEO Adrian Puren said the goal now was to find out how the virus would behave.

“Our experts are working overtime with all the established monitoring systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” said Professor Puren.

The variant may be the ‘worst yet’

The newly identified variant of coronavirus is also of concern to UK health authorities due to its high number of mutations and rapid spread among adolescents.

The UK Health Agency (UKHSA) said that B.1.1.529 had a peak protein that was dramatically different from the original coronavirus variant on which the vaccines were based.

It said it had mutations that were likely to evade the immune response generated by both previous COVID-19 infection and vaccination.

It also had mutations associated with increased infectivity, UKHSA said.

Officials characterized the variant, which has twice the number of mutations as the currently dominant Delta variant, as the “worst yet”.

“What we do know is that there are a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant,” said UK Health Minister Sajid Javid.

“And it suggests that it may well be more transmissible, and the current vaccines we have may well be less effective.”

A red sign on the British street shows COVID-19 staying 2 m apart with a description of two people walking socially distanced
Britain has temporarily banned inbound flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries. (Reuters: Andrew Boyers)

The UK announced today that it is temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

British travelers returning from these destinations must be quarantined, it said.

Laboratory studies were needed to assess the likelihood that the mutations would result in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy, scientists said.

Officials advised the UK Government to act quickly and preventively in case concerns about the impact of the variant were confirmed, although it could take weeks to generate all the necessary information on its characteristics.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said there would be no changes to Australia’s border restrictions yet, but said health authorities are still learning about the new variant.

“If the medical advice is that we have to change [our border restrictions], we will not hesitate, “he said.

“At this stage, the advice of the Chief Medical Officer … is that there is no basis for change.”

Some ‘good news’ despite concerns

Earlier this week, South African researchers said they had discovered the new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.

UKHSA said no cases of the variant had been detected in the UK and that they were in contact with South African colleagues over their data.

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South Africa’s health minister, Joe Phaahlahas, said the country had seen an “exponential increase” in new infections due to the B.1.1.529 variant.

Tulio de Oliveira, from the South African Network for Genomic Surveillance, said studies of the variant were underway.

The team has 100 whole genomes of the variant and expects to have many more in the next few days.

The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmission ability,” he said.

AP / Reuters

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