A new variant of coronavirus that was first identified in a patient in Botswana has scientists worried since it has twice the number of mutations seen on the Delta variant, NPR reported. The news comes shortly after infections have spiked in European countries like Austria and Germany, even after vaccinating over 60 percent of their population. So far, the spike in cases has not been linked to this newly found variant.
Viruses undergo rapid changes in their genetic makeup as they reproduce inside the host cell. These changes help the virus become more infectious or evade the host immune system. Over the summer, the Delta variant that had 11-15 mutations in its spike protein became the dominant infection around the world.
Scientists are more worried than ever because the new variant, named B1.1.529, has 32 mutations in its spike protein which could significantly alter the virus' structure. Since vaccines have been designed around the original structure of the spike protein, even the vaccinated may not be protected against the new variant, Business Insider reported. Details as to whether the new variant is more infectious or causes more severe infections are still unknown.
So far, 82 cases have been reported, including the first detection in Botswana on November 11. Since the first patient, 77 cases have been reported in neighboring South Africa, and one other report coming from Hong Kong in an individual who had traveled to South Africa. Eric Feigl-Ding of the Federation of American Scientists tweeted this about the Hong Kong case in a thread about the new variant.
6) The case found in Hong Kong was a 36-year-old man who had a negative PCR test before flying from Hong Kong to South Africa, where he stayed from 22 October to 11 November. He tested negative on his return to Hong Kong, but tested positive on 13 November while in quarantine. 👀— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) November 25, 2021
As a precautionary measure, the U.K. has already put six countries in Southern Africa into its "red list" and canceled flights to the region, NPR reported.
Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University tweeted
This one is worrying and I’ve not said that since delta. 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 https://t.co/GVVUL3E6Fs— Ravi K Gupta (@ravgup33_ravi) November 24, 2021
Based on preliminary data, John Burn-Murdoch from the Financial Times tweeted that although the total number of cases caused by the new variant was quite low at the moment, the variant was spreading rapidly in South Africa, out-competing even the Delta variant.
Five quick tweets on the new variant B.1.1.529— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) November 25, 2021
Caveat first: data here is *very* preliminary, so everything could change. Nonetheless, better safe than sorry.
1) Based on the data we have, this variant is out-competing others *far* faster than Beta and even Delta did 🚩🚩 pic.twitter.com/R2Ac4e4N6s
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) of the World Health Organization is scheduled to convene today to discuss the variant and suggest appropriate measures, its COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted a little earlier.