Covid variant B.1.1.529 emerges in South Africa: Here’s what we know

A man enters the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) on June 15, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

The World Health Organization meets on Friday to discuss a new highly mutated variant of Covid-19.

The variant known as B.1.1.529 has been discovered in a small number in South Africa, WHO officials said.

South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said in a media briefing held by the South African Ministry of Health on Thursday that the variant contains more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells.

This is significantly more than the delta variant, which spread like wildfire earlier this year to become the dominant tribe worldwide. Many of these mutations are linked to increased antibody resistance, which can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and affect how the virus behaves in terms of vaccines, treatments and transmissibility, health officials have said.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical director at Covid-19, said in a livestreamed Q&A on Thursday that scientists “do not know much about this yet” and that it would take a few weeks to get a complete picture of how the variant responds. existing vaccines.

The United Kingdom immediately moved to ban flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from Friday noon to 4pm local time on Sunday.

The UK Health Security Agency is investigating the variant, which Health Minister Sajid Javid said was “potentially worrying”. No cases have yet been identified in the UK

Israel has also blocked travel to several South African nations due to the new variant, as well as Singapore.

Spread not yet known

The first genomes of the new variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database on November 22, but genomes have now been uploaded from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, where the extent of the spread is not yet known.

Cases have so far been concentrated in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous region and home to nearly 16 million people, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during Thursday’s briefing.

The South African rand fell to more than 16.2 against the dollar on Friday morning as investors rushed into cover.

The new development comes as the case of Covid-19 increase around the world on its way into the winter months, with several countries in Europe in particular seeing record increases and implementing strict containment measures.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told CNBC on Friday that suggestions that the variant could be more transmissible than delta and that it could evade vaccine protection meant it was “a matter of serious concern”. . “

“The Delta variant is already extraordinarily transmissible. It’s really hard to think of another virus that is more transmissible,” Schaffner told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

“If we have another Covid tribe that can spread even easier than Delta, it would be a challenge for all of us around the world, because when Delta arrived this summer, it changed the game.”

A positive so far, however, is that the variant has not yet been associated with more severe cases of Covid-19, Schaffner noted.

The markets rumbled

Markets around the world tumbled sharply in response to the news, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 falling 3% in early trading and US stock futures pointing to an opening loss on the Dow Jones Industrial Average of more than 800 points.

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