LONDON (AP) – WHAT IS THE NEW COVID-19 OPTION IN SOUTH AFRICA?
This week, South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus that they say is responsible for the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It is unclear where the new variant actually originated, but it was first discovered by scientists in South Africa and has also been seen on travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana.
Health Minister Joe Fahla said the option was associated with “exponential growth” in cases over the past few days, although experts are still trying to determine if a new option, dubbed B.1.1.529, is really to blame.
With just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa’s daily new cases soared to 2,465 on Thursday. In an attempt to explain the sudden rise in the incidence, scientists examined samples of the virus during the outbreak and discovered a new variant.
On Friday, the World Health Organization convened a panel of experts to evaluate data from South Africa.
WHY ARE SCIENTISTS PROVIDING THIS NEW OPTION?
It appears to have a large number of mutations – around 30 – in the coronavirus spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads in humans.
Sharon Peacock, who oversaw COVID-19 genetic sequencing in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the current evidence suggests the new variant has mutations “consistent with increased transmissibility,” but said “many of the mutations are not significant. still not known. “
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described this variant as “the most severely mutated version of the virus that we have seen.” He said it was a matter of concern that while the variant is only found in small numbers in parts of South Africa, “it looks like it is spreading rapidly.”
WHAT IS KNOWN AND UNKNOWN ABOUT THE OPTION?
We know that the new variant is genetically different from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but we do not know if these genetic changes make them more transmissible or dangerous.
South African scientists have noticed a spike in cases, but we don’t know if the new variant is to blame, and it will take weeks to figure out if vaccines are effective against it.
So far, there is no indication that this variant causes more severe illness. South African experts said that, as with other options, some infected people show no symptoms.
While some of the genetic changes in the new variant are worrisome, it is still unclear if the virus will pose a significant public health threat. Some of the previous options, such as the beta, initially worried scientists, but ultimately did not gain widespread acceptance.
François Ballou, director of the Institute of Genetics at University College London, said it was impossible to make any predictions as to whether the virus was more dangerous or infectious based on its genetic makeup alone.
HOW DOES THE NEW OPTION COME UP?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with alarming genetic changes, often die. Scientists are tracking the COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or fatal, but they cannot determine this simply by looking at the virus. They have to compare the nature of the illness during the outbreak with the genetic sequence, and figuring out if there is a real link can take time.
Peacock said the variant “could have developed in someone who was infected but then failed to clear the virus, giving the virus a chance to genetically evolve,” in a scenario similar to how experts think the alpha variant, which was first found in England, also resulted from a mutation in an immunocompromised person.
Are travel restrictions justified in some countries?
May be. From Friday afternoon, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union countries also took quick steps on Friday to try to stop air traffic from southern Africa.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent,” said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.
Ballou of University College London said that if the new option turns out to be more infectious than delta, the new restrictions won’t have much of an impact, but they may still give the UK time to boost vaccination rates and roll out other possible interventions.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The World Health Organization has convened a technical expert group to decide whether the new version warrants the designation of the option of interest or the option of concern. If they do, the variant will most likely be named after a letter of the Greek alphabet under the current naming system.
Variants of interest, which currently include mu and lambda variants, have genetic alterations that are known to influence things such as transmissibility and disease severity, and have been found to cause significant clusters in many countries.
Options of concern, including alpha, beta and delta, have shown that they can spread more easily, cause more serious disease, or make existing tools such as vaccines less effective.
The delta variant remains the most transmitted form of COVID today; it accounts for over 99% of the sequences used in the world’s largest publicly available database.