South African scientists have discovered a new variant of COVID-19 B.1.1.529 with a "very unusual constellation" of mutations. This feature may enable it to evade the body's immune response and spread faster among the population. According to Reuters, it is likely to be given the name "Nu" soon, according to the current classification of strains.
Scientists have discovered more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, part of the virus that binds to cells in the body. Some of these are related to the increased resistance to antibodies that can reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines; a few more—usually make the virus more infectious. As for the rest of the mutations, scientists cannot yet say with certainty whether they will change its behavior.
Before the mentions of a new strain in South Africa have appeared, approximately 200 new patients with coronavirus were recorded. On Wednesday, infections increased to 1,200 and on Thursday—to almost 2,500. Scientists do not exclude a connection between a sharp spike in incidence with the spread of a new variant. B.1.1.529 quickly spread across the province of Gauteng, home to the country's largest city, Johannesburg. The experts do not exclude its presence in other regions of the country. In addition to South Africa, the new strain was also found in Hong Kong and Botswana, it was brought there by travelers from South Africa.
Joseph Phaahla Phaahla, the Minister of Health of the Republic of South Africa, stated that it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to this variant. He noted the need for additional research.
How WHO responds to emergence of new strain from RSA
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that it is monitoring a new variant with multiple mutations in the spike protein and is calling an emergency meeting about it.
"We don't know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when there are so many mutations, it could affect the behavior of the virus," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, stresses.
How Great Britain responds to the new strain
The UK has announced a temporary halt on flights from South Africa after the local Health Agency (UKHSA) raised concerns over a new strain of coronavirus. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care of Great Britain, stated that flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe would be halted from noon on November 26 and all six countries would be added to the "red" list.
"UKHSA is studying a new variant. More data is needed, but we are now taking action," Javid stated, adding that the "South African" variant may be more contagious than the Delta strain.
Context. Recall, South Africa was the first country to discover the beta variant last year. B. 1.351 was first recorded in Nelson Mandela Bay County in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in December 2020. In Ukraine, it was discovered in two regions in early April 2021.