JOHANNESBURG. The appeal to a new variant of the coronavirus, whose mutations indicate a “great leap in evolution”, is causing a surge in new Covid-19 infections in South Africa, scientists said Thursday.
Over the past 36 hours after observing an increase in the number of infections in the economic center of South Africa, Gauteng province, scientists have discovered variant B1.1.529. There are 22 positive cases in South Africa to date, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases of South Africa.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, several options have emerged. One of the main concerns with new options is whether they will stunt progress in the fight against the pandemic or limit the effectiveness of the vaccine. On Friday, South African scientists will meet with a technical team from the World Health Organization, where authorities will assign the letter to the Greek alphabet.
Botswana’s Ministry of Health confirmed in a statement that four cases of the new variant were found in humans, all of whom were fully vaccinated. All four were checked before the planned trip. One specimen was also found in Hong Kong, brought by a traveler from South Africa, South African scientists said.
With over 1,200 new infections, the daily infection rate in South Africa is much lower than in Germany, where new cases are the driving force. However, the mutation density in this new variant raises concerns that it could be highly contagious, prompting scientists to sound the alarm sooner.
“This option really surprised us, it has a big leap in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after the very difficult third wave of the Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
According to Mr de Oliveira, variant B1.1.529 has a “very unusual mutation pool” of more than 30 mutations in the spiked protein alone. On the ACE2 receptor, a protein that helps create an entry point for the coronavirus that infects human cells, the new variant has 10 mutations. By comparison, there are three in the Beta and two in the Delta, said Mr de Oliveira.
Possessing mutations that may resist neutralization, scientists are also still not sure how effective existing vaccines will be against the new variant. This variant bears similarities to the lambda and beta variants, which are associated with innate immune evasion, said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
“All of this gives us some concern that this variant may not only have increased transmissibility, thus spreading more efficiently, but may also bypass parts of the immune system and the defenses we have in our immune systems,” he said. Mr. Lessells.
The new variant was found mainly in young adults, a cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rates in South Africa. Just over a quarter of people between the ages of 18 and 34 are vaccinated, according to the country’s health minister, Dr. Joe Fahl.
While cases of the new variant are mostly concentrated in the country’s economic center, especially in the capital Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” for the virus to spread across the country as schools close and families prepare for their vacation travel. – said Mr. Fahla.