Virologists are warning about the dangers posed by a “horrific” new variant of COVID-19 that was first discovered in southern Africa.
The variant, currently named B.1.1.529, has dozens of mutations, making it more likely to be able to evade the protections provided by vaccines.
So far the variant has only been identified in 10 patients, but it has already been found in three different countries, and scientists are now concerned the “extremely high number” of mutations could make this even more transmissible than the delta variant.
“This one is worrying and I’ve not said that since delta,” Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, tweeted about the variant. “Please get vaccinated and boosted and mask up in public as the mutations in this virus likely result in high-level escape from neutralizing antibodies.”
The variant was first identified by Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, who noted that the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern.”
The variant was discovered in Botswana in samples collected on Nov. 11. In total three cases of the new variant have now been sequenced in Botswana Six cases have been identified in South Africa, in samples collected on Nov. 14.
The final case was identified in a 36-year-old man in Hong Kong who traveled to South Africa last month. He had recorded a negative PCR test prior to his trip from Oct. 22 to Nov. 11 and another negative test when he returned to Hong Kong. However two days later, on Nov. 13, he tested positive while in quarantine.
By their very nature, viruses like COVID-19 mutate all the time and it is not unusual to see small clusters of cases based on a new mutation. But there are a number of reasons why virologists are particularly concerned about B.1.1.529.
In total, the new variant has 32 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus responsible for identifying and invading cells. Of particular concern is the fact that the new variant has two mutations to a part of the virus called the furin cleavage site.
It was a mutation to this part of the virus that caused the delta variant to spread like wildfire, and the new variant marks the first time virologists have observed two mutations to this site.
It is important to note that there is no way of knowing yet just how transmissible this new variant will be and so far only a handful of cases have been identified in a part of Africa that is relatively well-sampled.
“It’s possible this is just an odd cluster that isn’t very transmissible,” Peacock said. “I hope that’s the case.”
But the virologist added that the number of mutations and their location means this variant needs to be tracked closely.
“It very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” Peacock tweeted, adding: “[I] would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about.”
The new variant is of concern to scientists in South Africa, where cases have risen sharply in recent weeks, indicating the start of the country’s fourth wave of infection. In particular, there has been a significant rise in cases in Gauteng, a region including Pretoria and Johannesburg, where B.1.1.529 cases have been detected.
As the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, many parts of the world are once again facing a spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths. In the U.S., there is another surge of cases and hospitalizations, and more than 1,100 people are dying on average every day ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend.
In Europe, the World Health Organization has warned about rising case numbers in the region, suggesting that up to half a million additional deaths could be recorded by March unless drastic action is taken. Already some governments have re-imposed strict lockdown measures, leading to violent protests in some countries.