What to know about the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa


LONDON – South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus this week, which they say is behind the recent COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

It is unclear where the new mutation actually originated, but it was first discovered by South African scientists and has also been found in travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana.

Health Minister Joe Fahla said the last few days have been linked to an “exponential rise” of cases, although experts are still trying to determine if the new variant, named B.1.1.529, is really the cause.

From just 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw a racket of 2,465 new daily cases on Thursday. Scientists who are struggling to explain the sudden rise of cases have studied outbreak virus models and discovered a new mutation.

On Friday, the World Health Organization is calling on a group of experts to assess South African data.

Meanwhile, several countries moved to halt flights from South Africa on Friday, and stocks fell in Asia and Europe in response to the news.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why are scientists worried about the new mutation?

It has a large number of mutations in the coronavirus spike protein – about 30 – that affect how easily it spreads to people.

Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggests that the new variant has “enhanced proliferation” variants, but that “many mutations are significant”. Not yet known. ”

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the mutation as “the most mutated version of the virus we have ever seen.” Although this mutation has only been detected at low levels in parts of South Africa, “it seems to be spreading fast,” he said.

Today’s updates:World experts hold a special meeting on the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa

What is and is not known about transformation

We know that the new mutation is genetically different from the previous mutations, including the beta and delta variants, but we do not know whether these genetic changes make it more spread or dangerous.

South African scientists have observed an escalation of cases, but we do not know if the new mutation is responsible and if vaccines are still effective against it, it will take weeks to sort out.

So far, there is no indication that mutation causes more severe disease. Like other variants, some infected people have no symptoms, South African experts have said.

Although some genetic changes in the new mutation appear to be alarming, it is still unclear whether the virus poses a significant public health threat.

Some earlier mutations, such as the beta mutation, initially worried scientists but did not spread far.

Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said it was impossible to make any predictions based on whether the virus was highly dangerous or infectious or based on its genetic makeup.

How did this new transformation originate?

The coronavirus transforms as it spreads, and many new mutations, including worrisome genetic changes, usually die.

Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they cannot determine it by looking at the virus. They should compare the outbreak pattern to genetic sequences and take time to sort out if there is a real connection.

Peacock “may have evolved in an infected person but then failed to clear the virus, allowing the virus to genetically evolve,” how experts think of the alpha mutation – which was first identified in England – by mutating in a immune-compromised person.

Are travel restrictions imposed by some countries justifiable?

There may be. By Friday afternoon, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Svatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union nations moved quickly on Friday to stop air travel from South Africa.

In view of the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent,” said Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London.

Balloux of University College London said that if the new variant was more contagious than the Delta, the new restrictions would be less effective but they could still buy the UK some time to increase vaccination rates and eliminate other potential interventions.

What happens next?

The World Health Organization has convened a technical team of experts to determine whether the new mutation warrants a mutation of interest or a mutation of concern. If they do, the variant may be named after the letter of the Greek alphabet in accordance with the present nomenclature.

Mutations of interest – which currently include the Mu and Lambda variants – have genetic alterations that affect things like transmission and disease severity and have been identified to cause significant clusters in many countries.

Mutations of concern – which include alpha, beta and delta – have shown that they can spread more easily, cause more serious disease, or make current tools such as vaccines less effective.

To date, the Delta variant remains the most prevalent form of COVID-19; It contains more than 99% of the sequences shared with the world’s largest public database.

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