LONDON: A new variant of COVID-19 has emerged in southern Africa with an “incredibly high” number of mutations, scientists have warned.
It is feared that the variant, officially named B.1.1529 and first identified in Botswana, could drive further transmissions of the disease.
Very few cases, just 10, have been identified so far, all of them related to southern Africa.
The first three cases were identified in Botswana, and six more were found in South Africa. The last was identified in Hong Kong, in a traveler who had returned from South Africa.
The variant has an unusually high number of variations, which may allow it to evade natural and vaccine-induced immunity.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.
The World Health Organization's technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether or not to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
"The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves," Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, said at a virtual press briefing.
"It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines," she added.
UK Health Security Agency Chief Executive Jenny Harries said: “This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility.”
The variant was first identified at the start of this week, but Britain rushed to introduce travel restrictions on South Africa and five neighboring countries, acting much more swiftly than with the currently dominant Delta variant.
Britain announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from 1200 GMT on Friday, and that returning British travelers from those destinations would have to quarantine.
Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have 100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
“We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant," Oliveira said. The one piece of good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he added.
Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said the variant could be “of real concern” as its 32 spike protein mutations could enable it to more easily evade the immune system.
Peacock said on Twitter that the variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” which has the potential to make it more contagious than previous variants.
He added: “Export to Asia implies that this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply.
“Also, the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern.
“It’s worth emphasizing that this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled. However, it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile.”
New COVID-19 variants are regularly identified, but many pose no greater risk than previous versions. Some, however, have proved to be devastating — such as the delta variant, first identified in Britain, which went on to become the dominant strain in the UK and many other places because of its higher infection rate.
Another scientist, Prof. Francois Balloux, director of UCL’s Genetics Institute, told The Independent newspaper that the new strain could be a result of an infection in an immunocompromised person, such as one with HIV/AIDS, and that this could explain its highly irregular genetic formation.
“I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognized by neutralizing antibodies relative to alpha or delta. It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage,” Balloux said.
“So far, four strains have been sequenced in a region of sub-Saharan Africa with reasonable surveillance in place.
“It may be present in other parts of Africa. For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analyzed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.”
Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said that B.1.1.529 had an "unprecedented" number of mutations in the spike protein and was driving a recent rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa.
Ferguson cautioned that there was still no reliable estimates of the extent to which the variant “might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses."
After a period of relatively low transmission in which South Africa recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, in the past week the daily new cases rapidly increased to more than 1,200 on Wednesday. On Thursday they jumped to 2,465.
South Africa is aiming to inoculate 70 percent of its 59 million people.
With stockpiles of 16.5 million shots, South Africa has deferred taking delivery of more ordered doses because "we are getting vaccines in faster than we are using" them, health ministry director Nicholas Crisp said.
— With wires