EXPLAIN: What is this new COVID variant in South Africa?

LONDON – WHAT IS THIS NEW COVID-19 VARIANT IN SOUTH AFRICA?

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” of cases in the last few days, though experts are still trying to determine if the new variant, called B.1.1.529, is actually responsible.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases a day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. The researchers struggled to explain the sudden increase in cases and studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

On Friday, the World Health Organization convened a group of experts to assess the data from South Africa.

WHY ARE RESEARCHERS CONCERNED ABOUT THIS NEW VARIANT?

It appears to have a high number of mutations – about 30 – in coronavirus nail protein, which can affect how easily it spreads to humans.

Sharon Peacock, who has led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest that the new variant has mutations “consistent with increased transmissibility”, but said that “the importance of Many of the mutations are still unknown. “

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen.” He said it was worrying that although the variant was only detected at low levels in parts of South Africa, “it appears to be spreading rapidly.”

WHAT IS WIDE AND NOT KNOWN ABOUT THE VARIANT?

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

South African scientists have noticed an increase in cases, but we do not know if the new variant is responsible and it will take weeks to find out if vaccines are still effective against it.

So far, there is no evidence that the variant causes more serious illness. South African experts said that as with other variants, some infected people have no symptoms.

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

HOW DOES THIS NEW VARIANT COME UP?

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new varieties, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out. Researchers are monitoring COVID-19 sequences for mutations that can make the disease more contagious or fatal, but they can not determine it simply by looking at the virus. They need to compare the disease pattern at outbreak with the genetic sequences and finding out if there is a real link can take time.

Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in a person who was infected but then could not remove the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve,” in a scenario similar to how experts believe alpha- the variant – which was first identified in England – also arose, by mutating in an immunocompromised person.

ARE THE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS IMPOSED BY SOME COUNTRIES REASONED?

Maybe. From Friday noon, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to isolate themselves for 10 days. EU countries also moved quickly on Friday to try to stop flights from southern Africa.

Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, it is “cautious” to restrict travel from the region, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.

Balloux from University College London said that if the new variant proves to be more contagious than delta, the new restrictions will have little impact but that they can still buy the UK some time to increase vaccination rates and roll out other possible interventions.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The World Health Organization has convened a technical group of experts to decide whether the new variant justifies being designated as a variant of interest or a variant of concern. If they do, the variant is likely to be named after a letter of the Greek alphabet, according to the current naming system.

Variants of interest – which currently include the mu and lambda variants – have genetic changes that are known to affect things like transmissibility and disease severity and have been identified to cause significant clusters in several countries.

Varieties of concern – which include alpha, beta and delta – have been shown to spread more easily, cause more serious illness or make current tools such as vaccines less effective.

To date, the delta variant is still by far the most transferable form of COVID; it accounts for more than 99% of sequences shared with the world’s largest public database.

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