Scientists are closely tracking a COVID-19 variant with a ‘worrying’ number of mutations. They don’t yet know if it’s more infectious.

Scientists are closely tracking a COVID-19 variant with a ‘worrying’ number of mutations. They don’t yet know if it’s more infectious.

  • A variant with ‘worrying’ number of mutations has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.
  • Experts are concerned its mutations may help it to avoid antibodies produced by vaccines and treatments.
  • It has been detected 82 times, as of Thursday. For now, it’s being closely monitored. 

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Scientists and health officials are closely tracking a coronavirus variant with a “worrying” number of mutations that has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has 32 mutations in the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, called the spike protein — the target for existing vaccines and antibody treatments. A higher number of mutations in the spike protein may change its shape and means there is a greater risk that those vaccines and treatments won’t be effective against it. 

Experts are worried that the mutations might make the virus more infectious and help it avoid the antibody response, but this hasn’t been proven. It’s not yet clear if the mutations make the virus more deadly.

COVID-19 vaccines remain a “critical tool” to protect against severe illness, Tulio de Oliveira, director at South Africa’s centre for epidemic response and innovation, said in a briefing Thursday.

Dr. Tom Peacock, virologist at Imperial College London who posted about the variant on Github Tuesday, said that the high numbers of mutations could be of “real concern” and there were combinations of mutations that he hadn’t seen before in a single variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Professor Francois Balloux, director at University College London Genetics Institute, said in a statement to the Science Media Center Wednesday that the large number of mutations that appear to have occurred in a single burst suggest the variant evolved from a chronic infection in an immunocompromised individual. 

B.1.1.529 was first detected on November 11 and has been sequenced 82 times — 77 cases in South Africa, four cases in neighboring Botswana, and one case in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong case was attributed to an individual who had traveled to South Africa, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases Thursday.

Peacock cautioned that “export to Asia” might suggest that it’s more widespread than the sequences alone imply.

Professor Adrian Puren, acting executive director at NICD, said in a statement Thursday that NICD experts were “working overtime” to understand the new variant and its potential implications. 

Ravi K Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University said on Twitter Wednesday that the B.1.1.529 variant was “worrying, and I’ve not said that since Delta”.  The highly infectious Delta variant, which is the most common variant worldwide, has 11 to 15 mutations in its spike protein and some of them help it avoid the immune response, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Please get vaccinated and boosted and mask up in public as the mutations in this virus likely result in high level escape from neutralising antibodies,” Gupta said.

Dr. Michelle Groome, head of the division of public health surveillance and response at the NICD, said that individual compliance to preventative measures can have a “great collective impact” in limiting the spread of the new variant. “This means that individuals should get vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, maintain social distancing, and gather in well ventilated spaces,” she said. 

The World Health Organization and health officials from South Africa, where most of the cases have been detected, are due to meet to discuss the variant on Friday.

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