A new variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa, which scientists say is cause for concern due to its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, has Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often disappear. Scientists are watching for possible changes that could be more transmissible or fatal, but determining whether new variants will impact public health can take time.
South Africa has seen a dramatic increase in new infections, Phaahla said during an online press briefing.
“In the last four or five days there has been a more exponential increase,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of new cases were caused by the new variant.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, he said.
The WHO technical working group is due to meet on Friday to assess the new variant and can decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, “said Tulio de Oliveira, of the Genomic Surveillance Network in South Africa, who has tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country.
The “very high number of mutations is a concern for the predicted immune escape and transmissibility,” said de Oliveira.
“This new variant has many, many more mutations,” including over 30 at the spike protein that affects transmissibility, he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very quickly. We expect to start seeing pressures in the healthcare system in the coming days and weeks.”
De Oliveira said a team of scientists from seven South African universities are studying the variant. They have 100 whole genomes and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
“We are concerned about the leap in the evolution of this variant,” he said. The only good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.
After a relatively low transmission period in which South Africa recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, over the past week the number of daily new cases has quickly risen to over 1,200 Wednesday. On Thursday, they jumped to 2,465.
The first wave took place in Pretoria and the surrounding Tshwane metropolitan area and appeared to be cluster epidemics originating from student gatherings at universities in the region, Health Minister Phaahla said. Amid the increase in cases, scientists studied genomic sequencing and discovered the new variant.
“This is clearly a variant that we have to be very serious about,” said Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “It has a high number of cutting edge mutations that could affect transmissibility and the immune response.”
Gupta said scientists in South Africa need time to determine whether the increase in the number of new cases is attributable to the new variant. “There is a high probability that this is the case,” he said. “South African scientists have done an incredible job of quickly identifying this and bringing it to the attention of the world.”
South African officials had warned that a new resurgence was expected from mid-December to early January and had hoped to prepare for it by vaccinating many more people, Phaahla said.
About 41% of South African adults have been vaccinated and the number of vaccines administered per day is relatively low, at less than 130,000, well below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.
South Africa currently has around 16.5 million doses of the vaccine, by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, in the country and expects delivery of around 2.5 million more next week, according to Nicholas Crisp, Acting Director General of the National Department of Health.
“We are getting vaccines faster than we are currently using them,” Crisp said. “So for some time now we’ve been postponing deliveries, not reducing orders, just postponing our deliveries so that we don’t accumulate and stockpile vaccines. “
South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has recorded more than 2.9 million cases of COVID-19, including more than 89,000 deaths.
To this day, the delta variant remains by far the most infectious and has ousted other once disturbing variants including alpha, beta, and mu. According to footage submitted by countries around the world to the world’s largest public database, over 99% are delta.
As cases of the Delta variant continue to cause concern in the United States, the latest variant to take hold in the country, many wonder what other variants exist and what should we be concerned about?