What we know about the COVID-19 variant found in South Africa


All viruses – including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 – change over time. Most changes have little or no effect on their properties.

However, some changes may affect how easily they spread, their severity, or the effectiveness of vaccines against them.

This has been investigated because it has more than 30 mutations of the tip protein, which viruses use to penetrate human cells, say British health authorities.

This is about double the number of Delta, and makes this variant significantly different from the original coronavirus that current COVID-19 vaccines are designed to counteract.

South African researchers say some of the mutations are linked to resistance to neutralizing antibodies and increased transmissibility, but others are not well understood, so their full significance has not yet been clarified.

The British Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Susan Hopkins, told BBC radio that some mutations had not been seen before, so it was not known how they would interact with the others, making it the most complex variant seen so far.

So more tests will be needed to confirm whether it is more transmissible, contagious or can avoid vaccines.

The work will take a few weeks, said the World Health Organization’s technical director at COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, on Thursday. Meanwhile, vaccines remain an important tool in controlling the virus.

No unusual symptoms have been reported after infection with the B.1.1.529 variant, and as with other variants, some individuals are asymptomatic, the South African NICD said.


The UN agency will decide whether to designate it as a variant of interest or a variant of concern. The latter mark will be applied if there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it and it will get a Greek name.

The WHO has so far identified four variants of “concern” – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

Two varieties of interest are Lambda, identified in Peru in December 2020, and Mu, in Colombia in January.


Leave a Comment