A new coronavirus variant – B.1.1.529 – has been red-flagged by scientists worldwide over an alarmingly high number of spike mutations that might make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase its transmissibility and lead to more severe Covid symptoms.
First identified in South Africa at the start of this week, the strain has already spread to neighbouring countries, including Botswana, where it has been detected in fully vaccinated people.
Two cases have also been detected in Hong Kong – where two travellers arriving from parts of southern Africa had been quarantined, in line with local laws, in separate rooms.
On Thursday India called for rigorous screening of passengers from these three countries. Contacts of these travellers must also be tracked and tested, the Union Health Ministry advised states.
Here are five things to know about the new COVID-19 variant:
- The B.1.1.529 variant carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from previous incarnations, Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor from South Africa told reporters a press conference yesterday. Over 100 cases have been linked to this variant in South Africa already, with several more in neighbouring Botswana.
- Samples from the two infected people in Hong Kong returned “very high” viral loads, epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted this morning. “PCR Ct values of 18 and 19… insanely high considering they were negative on recent PCR tests,” he said. What is more worrying is that the patients were in separate rooms, suggesting the new variant is airborne.
- The B.1.1.529 variant has 50 mutations overall, including more than 30 on the spike protein alone. The spike protein is the target of most current vaccines and which the virus uses to unlock access to our body’s cells. There are 10 mutations on the receptor binding domain of the variant compared to just two for the Delta variant that caused havoc worldwide.
- “We don’t know very much about this (variant) yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, said, underlining the importance of a complete dose of vaccination.
- Other countries have reacted with caution to the new variant, which experts fear could set back global efforts to overcome the Covid pandemic. The United Kingdom has moved quickly, banning flights from South Africa, Botswana and other southern African countries.
With input from Reuters, AFP