LONDON (AP) – 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 now been seen on travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
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 there is a new option, named B.1.1.529, which has been assigned the Greek letter omicron. The World Health Organization on Friday is actually in charge.
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.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. chief medical officer for infectious diseases, said U.S. officials had agreed to call their South African counterparts later Friday for more information and said there was no indication that the variant had yet arrived in the U.S.
WHAT IS KNOWN AND UNKNOWN ABOUT THE OPTION?
Scientists know that the new variant is genetically different from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but they don’t know if these genetic changes make it even more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that this variant causes more severe illness.
It will likely take weeks to figure out if the new variant is more infectious and if vaccines against it are effective.
While some of the genetic changes in the new variant are worrisome, it is still unclear if they pose a public health threat. Some of the previous options, such as the beta, alarmed scientists at first, but ultimately did not gain widespread acceptance.
“We don’t know if this new option will be able to gain ground in delta regions,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “There is no opinion yet on how well this option will work where there are other options.” Delta is by far the most common form of COVID-19, accounting for over 99% of the sequences submitted to the world’s largest publicly available database.
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.
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” and will win the authorities more time, according to Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes that early detection of a new variant could mean that current restrictions will have a greater impact than when the delta variant first appeared.
“It took many, many weeks with the delta during the terrible wave in India before it became clear what was happening, and the delta had already settled in many places in the world, and it was already too late to do anything about it,” he said. “We may be at an earlier stage with this new option, so there may still be time to do something about it.”
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.