‘Serious concern’ as South Africa discovers new coronavirus variant | News about Coronavirus pandemic

South African scientists have discovered a new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and are working to understand its potential implications.

The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which is worrying because they could help it avoid the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the new variant have been registered in the country after genomic sequencing.

“Unfortunately, we have discovered a new variant, which is a cause for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a news conference.

The variant “has a very high number of mutations,” he said. “Unfortunately, it causes a resurgence of infections,” he added.

It has also been discovered in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, he said.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.

Daily infections rose to more than 1,200 on Wednesday, up from about 100 earlier in the month.

Prior to the discovery of the new variant, authorities had predicted that a fourth wave would hit South Africa, starting around mid-December, supported by travel ahead of the festive season.

The NICD said in a statement on Thursday that detected cases and the percentage tested positive are “rising rapidly” in three of the country’s provinces, including Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.

A cluster outbreak was recently identified, concentrated at a higher education institute in the capital Pretoria, the NICD said.

“Although the data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established monitoring systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” it states.

Since the onset of the pandemic, South Africa has recorded around 2.95 million cases of COVID-19, of which 89,657 have been fatal.

Ten mutations

Researchers said the new B.1.1.529 variant has at least 10 mutations compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.

“What gives us some concern (s) is that this variant may not only have improved transmissibility so that it spreads more efficiently, but may also be able to bypass parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system, “said researcher Richard Lessells.

So far, the variant has been seen to spread, especially among young people.

But the coming days and weeks will be key to determining the severity of the variant, Lessells said.

Professor Helen Rees, from the WHO’s African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group, urged people not to panic.

“[Currently] we try to identify how widespread this is. There will be a lot of work to look at: Is it more transferable? Is it associated with a more serious illness? Does that make the vaccines less effective? “Rees told Al Jazeera.

“In the meantime, our big request to the world regarding vaccination of the African region is to please get the vaccines out into the region, because as we know, variants do not remain in one country,” she added.

South Africa has requested an urgent meeting of a working group from the World Health Organization (WHO) on virus development on Friday to discuss the new variant.

Health Minister Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant.

South Africa was the first country to discover the Beta variant last year.

Beta is one of only four labeled “of concern” by the WHO because there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it.

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