A New Coronavirus Variant Could Just Be the Most Dangerous to Date

Vaccines might not work due to the extremely high number of mutations.
Ameya Paleja
Viruses constantly mutate to yield new variants.peterschreiber.media/iStock

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. 

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 

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. 

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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. 

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