A new 'Botswana' variant of COVID-19 has been detected that, experts believe, is the most mutated version of the virus yet. The new strain B.1.1.529, its scientific name, is believed to have emerged in Botswana and could eventually be named 'Nu'.
"This #B11529 variant is bad bad bad. Scientists worldwide are worried. It has a very bad spike mutation profile and it is spreading fast across South Africa," tweeted Eric Feigl-Ding, Epidemiologist, Federation of American Scientists.
Researchers in South Africa are tracking the rise of this new variant that harbours many mutations found in other variants, including Delta. It seems to be spreading quickly across South Africa.
First identified in Botswana, it was found in travellers to Hong Kong from South Africa. Scientists are trying to understand whether it can evade immune responses triggered by vaccines and whether it causes more or less severe disease than other variants do.
Scientists have said that the variant may potentially dodge immunity from vaccines and previous infections.
"32 mutations in one spike protein is helluva a lot. Its "extremely high". And it has real concerns because of the bad nature of these mutations too," Feigl-Ding tweeted.
Researchers spotted B.1.1.529 in genome-sequencing data. Most notably, the variant has 50 mutations overall. It contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein — the SARS-CoV-2 protein that recognises host cells and is the main target of the body's immune responses, causing the inability to fight infection-blocking antibodies.
The Delta Plus variant was characterised by the K417N mutation on the spike protein; this has been linked to immune escape, but it is unclear if this is among the mutations in B.1.1.529, South African scientists said in a news briefing.
Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong - where travellers from southern Africa were isolated in separate rooms. Their samples returned "very high" viral loads, Feigl-Ding tweeted this morning. "PCR Ct values of 18 and 19... insanely high considering they were negative on recent PCR tests," he said.
Because the patients were in separate rooms, there is concern this variant is airborne. "... looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant... and yes, it is very airborne. Hotel guests were in different room across the hallway. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swab across both rooms," Feigl-Ding tweeted.
Cases increased rapidly in the area in November, particularly in schools and among young people. The B.1.1.529 variant was responsible for all 77 virus samples analysed from Gauteng, collected between 12 and 20 November. The variant saw a sharp rise in South Africa's Gauteng province, home to Johannesburg.
On Thursday, India called for rigorous screening of passengers from these countries. "This variant... has serious public health implications in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel," the ministry said.
The United Kingdom and Israel have stopped flights from South Africa, Botswana and four other African nations. Australia may tighten rules for incoming travellers as well.
The World Health Organization has called for caution in the initial stages of dealing with this variant; the global health body said more research needs to be conducted to understand how B.1.1.529 behaves.
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