Geneva: The World Health Organization (WHO) is convening an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the potentially rapidly spreading COVID strain found in South Africa and Botswana.
A new covid variant with an “extremely high” number of mutations and which could escape vaccines has been identified in three different countries, although case numbers are very small.
The B.1.1.529 strain, an offshoot of an old variant called B.1.1, has 32 spike mutations and has been found in South Africa, Botswana and one case in Hong Kong, where the person had recently travelled to South Africa.
So far only 10 cases of the variant have been spotted through genomic sequencing, but scientists say there could be more not yet identified. The profile of mutations is concerning due to its potential to dodge antibodies that can fight the virus.
New covid variants are identified by virologists all the time and often do not spread beyond a handful of cases. Even if they have the capacity to evade vaccines, if they are less transmissible than a dominant variant in a country they can quickly die out.
While the cluster is small, the case in Hong Kong exported from South Africa will fuel concerns that more infections will have spread through international travel.
Officials and scientists at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) are monitoring and investigating the variant.
The Hong Kong case was a 36-year-old man who travelled to South Africa on 23 October and returned on 11 November. He tested negative on arrival back in Hong Kong but went on to test positive while at a quarantine hotel. The Hong Kong authorities have carried out compulsory testing at the apartment block where he lives.
In South Africa, the number of confirmed cases of covid has increased from 312 on Monday to more than 860 on Tuesday, although scientists believe it is too soon to tell whether there is a link with the new “super variant”.
The new variant was identified on Tuesday by Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, who posted the details on a sequence-sharing forum and on Twitter.
The variant’s 32 spike mutations is described as “extremely high”. The Delta variant, now dominant across the world, has 16.
Spike mutations are essentially the virus’ “bag of tricks” that allow it to adapt and do different things such as become more transmissible, escape vaccines or become more deadly. It is not known whether B.1.1.529 is more transmissible or could beat Delta’s dominance.