South African scientists fear new Covid variant could be more infectious

·3-min read
A lab assistant uses a pipette to prepare Coronavirus RNA for sequencing (AP)
A lab assistant uses a pipette to prepare Coronavirus RNA for sequencing (AP)

The World Health Organisation will hold a special meeting today to discuss a new Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa, where scientists are concerned the new strain could be more infectious and better at outsmarting current vaccines than earlier variants.

On Thursday, scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance South Africa announced the discovery of the variant, named B.1.1.529, in the country. The strain has about 50 mutations — a high number of changes to the SARS-CoV-2 genetic code, said the network’s Tulio de Oliveira, head of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP).

Some of these mutations have rarely been seen before, he said. Others have been found in previous strains where they were associated with increased transmissibility of the virus and as well as some reduction in the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines and antibody-based treatments.

Still, scientists warn that it will likely take several weeks to conclude laboratory testing to determine what exactly the new variant’s unusual constellation of mutations means for the strain’s transmissibility and what effect it will have on vaccines’ ability to defend against it.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira (KRISP South Africa)
Professor Tulio de Oliveira (KRISP South Africa)

“We can make some predictions about the impact of the mutations from prior knowledge... but the full significance remains uncertain,” De Oliveira said. “Vaccines remain the critical tool to protect us against severe disease.”

De Oliveira and other South African scientists are expected to hold an urgent meeting with the World Health Organisation Technical Working Group on virus information today. The new variant’s numerical name will likely be replaced with an easier-to-use Greek letter at the meeting, as has been done with previous strains such as Beta and Delta.

Although B.1.1.529 variant was first identified in South Africa, De Oliveira said it was impossible to know whether the strain actually emerged in the country. As of Thursday, the strain had been detected largely in South Africa but cases had also been identified in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

The monitoring of the new variant comes as global Covid cases are on the rise heading into the festive season, with the WHO reporting hot spots in all regions and particularly in Europe.

The UK has announced it will impose a travel ban on six African nations, including South Africa, in response to the discovery of the variant which officials have dubbed “the worst one we’ve seen so far”.

South Africa has faced successive waves of infections driven largely by the rise of increasingly contagious Covid variants that overwhelmed hospitals.

Based on preliminary data, KRISP infectious diseases specialist Richard Lessells said the B.1.1.529 variant may already be circulating widely throughout South Africa and is moving to become the country’s dominant strain, unseating the Delta variant.

As South Africa moves into December, many in the country will be travelling from large cities to rural areas to be with extended family, which Health Minister Joe Phaahla warned will likely contribute to increased cases.

“We really would like to be wrong about some of the predictions,” De Oliveira said. “(But) we hope that we use that time wisely to prepare the health system… in case this variant is as serious as one would expect.”

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