Covid B.1.1.529 variant emerges in South Africa: here’s what we know

The World Health Organization on Friday called a new, highly mutated strain of Covid-19 a variant of concern.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are of concern,” the WHO said in a statement on Friday. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant, compared to other VOCs.”

The variant, first known as B.1.1.529 and now named omicron, has been detected in low numbers in South Africa, WHO officials said. However, the number of omicron cases “appears to be increasing” in almost every province in South Africa, the WHO reported on Friday. The omicron variant has since been found in the UK, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.

Here’s what we know so far:

Multiple mutations

South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira told a press briefing on Thursday by the South African Department of Health that the variant contains a “unique constellation” of more than 30 mutations of the spike protein, the component virus that binds to cells. This is significantly more than those of the delta variant.

Many of these mutations are linked to increased resistance to antibodies, which can affect how the virus behaves with regards to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility, health officials said.

De Oliveira said the variant contains around 50 mutations in total. The receptor binding domain, the part of the virus that first comes into contact with cells, has 10 mutations, far more than two for the delta Covid variant, which spread rapidly earlier this year to become the strain dominant in the world.

This level of mutation means that it is possible that it came from a single patient who could not eliminate the virus, giving him the possibility of evolving genetically. The same hypothesis has been proposed for the alpha Covid variant.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on Covid-19, said in a live question-and-answer session on Thursday that scientists “don’t know much about it yet” and that it would take a few weeks to get a full picture of how the variant responds to existing vaccines.

“Most important variant” to date

The UK immediately decided to ban flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from noon Friday to 4 a.m. local time Sunday.

The UK Health Safety Agency is investigating the variant, which Health Secretary Sajid Javid says is “potentially worrying”. No cases have yet been identified in the UK, and Javid stressed that although more data is needed at this early stage, the government has chosen to take precautions.

“This is the most significant variant that we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and susceptibility to the vaccine,” said Jenny Harries, CEO of the UK HSA.

Israel has also banned travel to several southern African countries on the new variant, as well as Singapore and other countries. Israel has reported a case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with health experts on Friday to discuss the country’s response, which could include declaring a state of emergency.

Belgium became the first European country to report a case of the B.1.1.529 variant on Friday afternoon.

However, the WHO on Friday warned countries against the hasty imposition of travel restrictions. Spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva that governments should take a “science-based and risk-based approach” and stressed that it will take researchers several weeks to understand the impact. potential of the variant.

Easier to contain?

“It appears that this particular variant has a very concerning set of mutations, especially in the spike protein, which is necessary for its transmission properties as well as its protection against vaccines, so based on the genetic information, we are quite sure. concerned about this, “Pasi Penttinen, head of public health emergency response at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, told CNBC on Friday.

“We still have a lot to learn about the situation in South Africa and all efforts should now be made not only in South Africa, but in the countries of the Southern Africa region, to ensure that they get a full picture of this virus, “Penttinen mentioned.

However, François Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, told the BBC on Friday that the early discovery of the variant could make it easier to contain.

Balloux added that even though B.1.1.529 is more transmissible than previous variants, it would not “get us to square one” in the effort to contain the virus. He suggested this should be seen as an irritating setback rather than a rebirth of the pandemic.

Propagation not yet known

The first genomes of the new variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database on November 22, but genomes have now been uploaded from South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, the extent of the spread not yet known.

Cases have so far been concentrated in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous region and home to nearly 16 million people, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at the briefing from Thursday.

The two cases in Hong Kong were identified in a quarantine hotel, with a person who traveled from South Africa suspected of having transmitted the virus to a person in an adjoining room.

The new development comes as cases of Covid-19, primarily the older delta variant, multiply around the world as the winter months approach. Several countries in Europe, in particular, have seen record peaks and have put in place strict containment measures.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told CNBC on Friday that suggestions that the variant might be more transmissible than delta and that it might escape vaccine protections meant it was ” a matter of serious concern “.

“The delta variant is already extraordinarily transmissible. It’s really hard to think of another more transmissible virus,” Schaffner told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia”.

“If we have another Covid strain that can spread even more easily than delta it would pose a challenge to all of us around the world because when delta arrived this summer it was a game-changer. “

One bright spot so far, however, is that the variant has yet to be associated with more severe cases of Covid-19, Schaffner noted.

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