COVID-19: New coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 identified in Botswana as scientists play down concerns

·2-min read

A new variant of the coronavirus with a "constellation" of mutations has been identified in Botswana.

Designated as B.1.1.529, scientists are still unclear whether existing antibodies would react well to the variant - which has 32 spike protein mutations.

Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, branded the mutations "really awful".

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Spike proteins are what viruses use to get into human cells, and some of the vaccines work by training the body to recognise the spikes and neutralise them.

Mutations on the spike can therefore potentially prove problematic for mRNA doses, like Pfizer and Moderna.

However, with only a handful of recorded cases - three in Botswana, six in South Africa and one in Hong Kong from someone who travelled from South Africa - scientists are hopeful that COVID cases caused by the new virus specimen will not be widespread.

Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology at University College London, said: "For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future."

She added that the "constellation" of mutations on B.1.1.529 could be because it "evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient".

It comes amid reports that England may be nearer to the "end" of the pandemic than any other European country.

Scientists reckon that high vaccination and infection rates mean that a high level of immunity is now present.

According to The Times, scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimate that - should all restrictions and vaccinations end immediately - England would have around 10,000 more COVID deaths relative to its population of 56 million.

This compares to 114,000 estimated in Germany - population 83.2 million - and 16,000 in Greece - population 10.7 million.

Researchers did not directly study Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they expect similar figures to England.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the UK has had 144,728 COVID-related deaths, Germany 100,123 and Greece 17,612 so far.

Lloyd Chapman, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the reason for England having a better outlook going forward was due to higher infections previously.

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"In a sense we paid a very high price for being further along a path towards having a high level of immunity in the population," he said.

"Whether that was the right strategy or not, I think in a way only time will tell."

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